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Uchaly, Bashkortostan
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Enough's enough Police officers across Russia are taking their own lives, and the justice system itself is partly to blame

Источник: Meduza
Uchaly, Bashkortostan
Uchaly, Bashkortostan
Larisa Bakina / Shutterstock.com

Every year in Russia, according to various data, anywhere from 50 to 400 police officers end their own lives. Last year, suicides accounted for at least 10 percent of all deaths among officers — and that figure is based only on the reported cases (Russia’s Interior Ministry doesn’t release full statistics). The cause of suicides in the police force is usually listed as “family and domestic problems,” but many inside the Interior Ministry say they suspect Russia’s law-enforcement system itself is to blame, with its constant overtime work and rising performance targets for solved crimes. Police suicides are unusually common in Bashkiria, where there were 10 such deaths just last year. Meduza special correspondent Pavel Merzlikin traveled to the region, to learn about the grueling life in law enforcement, and to try to understand what drives so many officers to take their own lives.

“The city mourns, wails, and weeps”

Yulai Khalilov never dreamed about working for the police, but he served almost a decade in the Interior Ministry. The monthly salary is largely what kept him on the job: between 40,000 and 45,000 rubles ($630 and $715), a pretty good living for where he lived in eastern Bashkiria. He almost never complained about the work, and ostensibly seemed to be a generally happy person.

On the morning of November 3, 2018, however, Yulai left for work and never came home. The next day, he was found hanged. “He’d fucking had enough,” his old colleagues in the police department say today. Yulai was 33 years old, and he left behind a wife and three children between the ages of 10 and three.

Khalilov was born and raised in Uchaly, about five hours from Ufa. The town developed rapidly during the Soviet era around a mining and processing plant, but that came to a halt in the 1990s. Arrive in Uchaly, and you’re immediately reminded of every provincial city in Russia: ugly gray high-rises, monuments to those killed in Afghanistan and Chechnya, and holiday festivals featuring the washed-up celebrities of yesteryear. In the early 2000s, urban construction started rebounding, but the 2008 financial crisis knocked out the legs from under this revival. In the center of town, there are still the skeletons of several unfinished buildings. The main local attractions are the philharmonic, a skating rink, a church, and two mosques.

Uchaly’s official population has held at 37,000 people for the past 20 years, but there’s hardly anyone on the street, and the town looks deserted. Asked about the apparent emptiness, locals say many people work on a rotational basis “in the North,” where they can earn up to 100,000 rubles ($1,580) a month. Meanwhile, most of the employers in Uchaly (with the exception of the mining and processing plant) don’t pay more than 20,000 rubles ($315).

In the 1990s, Uchaly gained “junkie” notoriety within Bashkiria. Today, there are still painted-over advertisements for drug dealers and signs posted around town promoting substance-abuse centers. Even more often, you stumble across businesses offering microloans, where local pensioners are promised daily interest rates of 0.7 percent, instead of the standard 1 percent.

Yulai Khalilov grew up in a big family. Like almost all families in Uchaly, they lived modestly. His father died early, and his mother raised five children alone. After serving in the army, Yulai returned to his hometown, went to college, and then spent several years working in construction, before the 2008 financial crisis forced him to find a new job. That’s how Khalilov found his way to the Interior Ministry. “Well, where else is there to go in this place? There’s nowhere,” says Ramil Rasulev, the brother of Khalilov’s widow. From 2003 to 2013, Ramil worked in the city prosecutor’s office. 

Khalilov started out as a guard at a temporary detainment facility, and later joined the police force. Through correspondence courses, he managed to get a law degree and become a detective. His cases were typical for a small town: petty theft and street crimes. According to relatives, Khalilov was thinking about a transfer to Ufa.

Yulai often worked six days a week, and was constantly stuck at the office until late. What free time he had, he spent with his wife, Yulia, a kindergarten teacher, and their three children. By local standards, the family was considered to be quite successful: the Khalilovs paid down the mortgage on their two-bedroom apartment, sold it off, and then used benefit payments from the local authorities to buy a three-bedroom home. Not long before his death, Yulai sold his old Daewoo Matiz hatchback and took out a loan to buy a new Renault. The family sometimes traveled on vacation, and even inherited a summer house from relatives, which Yulai had rebuilt. This was where he planned to live out his retirement.

On the evening of November 2, 2018, Yulai Khalilov arrived home around midnight, like usual, and told his wife that he needed to be back at the office by seven in the morning for another interrogation. After that, the couple was supposed to visit Yulia’s parents in the countryside, where they would slaughter geese for meat. 

In the morning, however, Yulai never showed up to work, and he couldn’t be reached by telephone. That evening, his wife called her husband’s supervisor, and friends and family joined the search effort. Around 11 p.m., investigators and police officers came to the Khalilovs’ home. They questioned Yulia briefly, explained that regional Interior Ministry officials had been notified about her husband’s disappearance, and left. Three hours later, they telephoned and asked Yulia to come to the police station.

Yulia’s interrogation started at two in the morning. According to Ramil Rasulev, the officers went after her, threatening to lock her up and take away her children. The police demanded that she testify to having argued with her husband, before he left for work. She refused, saying that there’d been no fight.

The police questioned Mrs. Khalilova at the station until noon the next day. According to reports in the local news media, she was denied food and water throughout the ordeal, but the officers repeatedly offered her cognac, insisting that she describe the domestic dispute she says never happened. Finally, the officers brought Yulia from the station to her family’s summer garden home, where her husband had been found hanged, hours earlier. With a trembling hand, Yulai had written in a suicide note that he blamed only himself for his death.

“When they interrogated my sister, they may have already known about Yulai’s death,” says Ramil Rasulev. “When you think about it, you get the feeling that they were trying to cover their own asses, inventing some kind of family reasons.”

Yulai’s body was buried next to his parents’ remains in a small town not far from Uchaly. On the day of his funeral, locals wrote in the town’s online communities about the deceased detective. One comment read, “An uneasy shroud looms over the city. Almost every resident in town is like a taut string. The police need new leadership. It’s chaos over there. The city mourns, wails, and weeps.”

It’s now been more than eight months since the death of Yulai Khalilov. To this day, his family doesn’t know the exact reason for his suicide, but they are certain that it’s tied to his work in the police force.

“We’ll never learn the truth”

“Yulai was a very quiet and non-confrontational person,” says his widow’s brother, Ramil Rasulev. “He couldn’t even raise his voice when someone got heated. Maybe he couldn’t take the pressure and the examinations.”

Khalilov’s former colleagues describe him in similar terms. “A quiet guy. Moderately sociable. He tried to solve every problem himself. He didn’t want to bother anyone. He was a good coworker,” one person told Meduza.

A former police officer says the working environment at Khalilov’s station “wasn’t ideal.” “The conditions are pretty awful: understaffing, metrics, overtime, cronyism,” the ex-cop told Meduza. “But Yulai had everyone’s respect. He was in good standing. There weren’t any particular conflicts.”

But two of Khalilov’s former colleagues told Meduza that he started having problems at work, not long before his suicide. In the fall of 2018, the regional prosecutor’s office audited the Uchaly police department, and found technical violations in certain official paperwork. As a result, several officers, including Yulai, lost their bonuses (which can account for as much as a third of their salaries). Khalilov got the news the day before he killed himself.

Officers who worked with Khalilov, however, say they doubt his suicide was because of problems at work. They say he often complained in the weeks before he died about overtime and how it was hurting his relationship with his wife. The detectives who investigated his death said the same thing in their report, writing that he killed himself because of family and domestic problems.

Despite the fact that officials didn’t fault Khalilov’s supervisors for his suicide, Uchaly Chief of Police Ildar Abdrakipov lost his job on November 12, 2018 — ten days after Khalilov’s death. Officially, he stepped down to collect his seniority pension, but a source close to the regional Interior Ministry told Meduza that the real reason for his termination was the suicide of a subordinate and the harassment of his widow. After Yulia Khalilova’s long interrogation, her brother filed multiple complaints against the police, and wrote a letter to Bashkiria’s political leadership. Two of Khalilov’s former colleagues confirmed to Meduza that one of the reasons the police chief lost his job was Yulai’s suicide. Meduza was unable to reach Ildar Abdrakipov for this report.

Yulai Khalilov’s relatives don’t believe he could have killed himself because of “family and domestic problems.” The family says there weren’t any serious issues at home, and they continue to look at other possible explanations for his suicide. Relatives told Meduza that they think the likeliest reason was pressure from supervisors related to Bashkortostan’s “Kurultay” State Assembly elections in September 2018, when Khalilov was responsible for maintaining order and preventing voter fraud at Polling Station 3125, which turned out to be the only precinct in the Uchaly District where United Russia lost against the Communist Party (36.7 percent to 49.3 percent). Across the region and within Uchaly, the ruling political party otherwise won a landslide victory.

Relatives admit, however, that they lack any evidence to prove that administrative pressure drove Yulai to suicide, and they say they’ve lost hope that they’ll ever find out the real reason for his death. “We know we’ll never learn the truth,” says Ramil Rasulev. “The authorities aren’t interested in this.”

Yulia Khalilova declined to speak to Meduza about her husband’s death, fearing renewed pressure from the police. She is now raising their three children. According to her brother, Yulia often sees her late husband in dreams, when he visits her and says he was forced to kill himself.

Lenin monument in Uchaly
Lidiya Vagapova / Shutterstock.com

Beyond the call of duty

Yulai Khalilov’s death wasn’t rare for Bashkiria. The region had a high suicide rate back in the Soviet era, and in recent years its suicides have led the nation in sheer numbers. In per capita terms, Bashkiria has solidly remained in Russia’s top-20 most suicidal regions. “Unemployment, empty wallets, the inability to repay loans, and alcoholism,” says Airat Khalikov, the head of the Bashkir State Medical University’s Forensic Medicine Department, explaining why people in the area so often take their own lives.

The situation has improved gradually, however. From 2010 to 2017, the annual number of suicides in Bashkiria dropped nearly by half: from 1,627 to 877. It’s unknown how many of these people were police officers (the Interior Ministry doesn’t publish these statistics), but open-source information suggests that suicides among officers have skyrocketed in the past 18 months. In years past, there were only reports of a handful of officers killing themselves, but in 2018 the local media started writing about dozens of such deaths. Between November 2018 and March 2019, six members of the police force committed suicide.

Similar data is available at the VKontakte community Police Ombudsman, where officers swap stories about life (and death) on the force. Sources close to the region’s Interior Ministry told Meduza that the actual number of police suicides is even higher, but the public hasn’t learned about every case, because spokespeople for the department are not obligated to report these incidents.

Based solely on open-source information, the number of police suicides in Bashkiria is nevertheless several times higher than in other regions of Russia. For comparison, there were 16 such deaths reported on Moscow’s police force between 2011 and 2015. 

There are no reliable statistics available for police suicides in the capital over the past four years, and the same is true nationwide. The Interior Ministry tracks officers’ suicides internally, but this data is intended for official use only, says Mikhail Pashkin, the head of the Moscow Police Trade Union. Gulshat Chovdyrova, the chief scholar at the Interior Ministry’s All-Russian Research Institute and an author at the journal Psychopedagogy in Law Enforcement, wrote in 2003 that Russia’s police force “has recently lost between 200 and 400 officers, including commanders, to suicide annually.” Another researcher, Volgograd State University Professor Alexander Sukhinin, confirmed in 2011 that between 200 and 340 police officers kill themselves every year.

Information about most police suicides in Russia never leaves the confines of the Interior Ministry’s internal records, but recently the public has been hearing about these deaths more and more. For example, there were 13 police suicides reported between early 2017 and March 2018, while 50 such deaths are known in 2018 as a whole. The overwhelming majority of these suicides were committed by rank-and-file officers. These 50 deaths alone constitute more than 10 percent of all police casualties in 2018. According to the Interior Ministry’s numbers, 446 staff died or were killed that year, including 45 officers in the line of duty.

“You can’t get seven skins from one sheep”

Of Russia’s 50 known police suicides in 2018, ten took place in Bashkiria (the Moscow region had the second most such deaths, with four reported cases). Between late 2018 and early 2019, news about officers taking their own lives became so regular that local news outlets started publishing stories with headlines like “Another Police Officer in Bashkiria Takes His Own Life.”

Some of the reporting on these deaths was highly detailed. On February 24, 2019, for instance, Ufa No. 8 Police Department Lieutenant Alexander Afansi killed himself. According to investigators, he jumped from the balcony of his home in the northern part of the city. He left no suicide note, and an autopsy revealed no alcohol in his blood. Officials initially even considered that Afansi was murdered, but the Interior Ministry later confirmed that he’d committed suicide. Like with Yulai Khalilov, the official explanation for his death is “domestic problems.”

A source close to top officials in Bashkiria’s Interior Ministry told Meduza that investigators’ leading theory is that Afansi killed himself because of a criminal case against his wife, Elvira, who is also a police lieutenant colonel at Ufa’s No. 1 Police Department. In October 2018, she was charged with three felonies: abusing her office, deliberately filing false information in official reports, and falsifying evidence and investigative findings.

Afansi’s defense attorney, Irina Valiyeva, refused to discuss her client’s case with Meduza. According to a source familiar with the investigation against her, Elvira Afansi was charged after investigative documents with incorrect dates were discovered in the evidence for one of her cases.

On December 25, 2018, Elvira Afansi lost her job at the police department. Her husband then quietly started looking into the case against his wife. Three days later, he used his accumulated paid-time-off and took a leave of absence to pursue Elvira’s defense. Over the next two months, he tried and failed to prove his wife’s innocence, a source told Meduza.

On the morning of February 24, 2019, Elvira went out with their children, while Alexander stayed behind to be alone and rest. According to local media reports, Elvira’s parents (who lived in the same apartment) arrived home around 2 p.m., but Alexander was gone. Around 7 p.m., he fell from the 11th-floor entrance-way balcony. Surveillance cameras show that he never left the building, after his wife and children went out. It’s still unknown what Alexander Afansi was doing in the final hours before he died.

One of Meduza’s sources is convinced that Afansi killed himself to spare his wife time in prison: by law, a single mother with two children is eligible for a deferral of punishment. “He apparently saw no other way out,” the source says.

Vladislav Shilyaev, a senior police officer in Bashkiria's Blagoveshchensky District, similarly found himself without alternatives. Shilyaev killed himself and left behind a suicide note extending his “sincerest thanks” to his department’s supervisors. In the note, he wrote, “Remember that you can’t get seven skins from one sheep. Do as you like. The person I’m addressing will understand this. Give the guys the gasoline and vehicles they need to work.”

One of Shilyaev’s former colleagues told Meduza that cutbacks in Bashkiria often force rank-and-file police officers to use their personal vehicles in the line of duty, or to fuel their patrol cars with their own money. Officers frequently have to purchase their own uniforms and even the ballpoint pens they use on the job. Nevertheless, Shilyaev’s old co-worker insists, like the men who served alongside Yulai Khalilov, that issues at work weren’t the main reason for his suicide. Shilyaev had “personal problems,” the officer says, but he declines to go into further detail, explaining that the information concerns Shilyaev’s family: a widow and their two children.

Police in Bashkiria say there are even more officers in the region who have attempted suicide but failed for various reasons. Some of these men are still in uniform. Two sources (an active and a former police officer) told Meduza about two officers on the force who were driven to the brink by Russia’s “stick system,” but didn’t ultimately follow through with killing themselves. In the end, both men returned to work, and their attempted suicides were covered up.

A source close to Bashkiria’s Interior Ministry told Meduza that there aren’t even rough estimates of how many police officers attempt suicide every year. “There might be any number of them, but they don’t really talk about it,” the source says. “There are two reasons for this: On the one hand, there’s nowhere to find work locally. And on the other hand, there’s nobody to work in the police department. At some stations in some districts, they’re seriously understaffed, and they work every single officer to the bone.”

Natalia Kokhanova / Shutterstock.com

Time off, after time served in Chechnya

Officially, the Interior Ministry attributes the wave of suicides among Bashkira’s police officers to family and domestic issues, or personal problems. Neither federal nor regional officials responded to Meduza’s questions about the situation in Bashkiria, but Meduza was able to reach 10 active and former officers in the region, all of whom agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity.

Meduza’s sources say blaming the suicides on personal problems is just the tactic pursued by department chiefs afraid of losing their jobs. In fact, it’s problems in Russia’s justice system (and specifically problems in the police force) that lead to issues at home. “Families don’t see their husbands and wives, because of the workload. Everyone who’s married ends up getting divorced, and anyone who’s single never gets married,” says one of the officers who spoke to Meduza.

The police officers say they face three main problems at work that transform many of their colleagues into “shattered zombies” over time.

The first problem is staff shortages, irregular work hours, and insufficient time off, brought about by constant emergencies in the department. “The police salary is high for Bashkiria and they’re ready to take anyone [because of staff shortages],” says an active police officer. “But a lot of people still don’t want to join. And finding another job [after quitting] won’t be easy. People start looking at you differently. Former cops aren’t well liked in these parts. Everyone knows the saying: ‘The pigs are a national disgrace.’”

The second problem is bad blood between officers. Meduza’s sources say almost every police officer is ready to “rat out another for a promotion or a bonus.” As a result, the people who end up in management are those who are most convenient for their superiors. “A few years ago, you could at least defuse the tension by getting a drink together,” says one officer. “But it’s not like that anymore [because colleagues are constantly competing for possible promotions]. So officers are abandoned in a stream of negativity that pours down on them because of the nature of the job.” It’s especially hard, say Meduza’s sources, for officers who have to face this pressure without their family’s support.

The third and most devastating problem Meduza’s sources named was the so-called “prospects system” (also known as the “stick system”), when supervisors share with staff their plans to solve crimes and reach other targets. For example, if the authorities solved 100 crimes in 2018, the number of solved crimes in 2019 can’t be any lower. At the same time, litigating cases consumes an enormous amount of time because of the justice system’s endless paperwork.

Police officers say the lack of time to solve cases drives them to commit small and sometimes large acts of fraud. In essence, the situation is simple: either you falsify [the evidence], or you shoot yourself, or you leave the force. Well, or you become a drunk,” says one man who used to serve in Bashkiria’s police force.

Meduza’s sources explain that most police officers would gladly leave the service, but they’re afraid they won’t make it on their own. “Most of them don’t know how to do anything else,” says an officer in Bashkiria. “They think nothing will work out anywhere else, so they hold on and bear it, because of the salary and the years they’ve invested. They put in 20 years and take the pension, and then find jobs in private security.”

Additionally, many police officers are saddled with debts or mortgages, which also discourages staff from leaving jobs that pay more than most in the region. Bashkiria remains one of Russia’s most indebted areas, with working residents owing more than 200,000 rubles ($3,065) on average.

Even if officers find other work, however, leaving the police force can be a challenge. According to the officers who spoke to Meduza, supervisors in their fight against understaffing do whatever they can to prevent staff from leaving, sometimes even threatening to prosecute them for crimes and small falsifications on the job that ordinarily go unpunished — for example, for forging the signature of a colleague who asked you to sign a document for him, or for giving a “gift” to a forensic expert to expedite case work needed in an investigation. Officers say small infractions like these are a part of their everyday routine.

To get time off, police officers in Bashkiria often ask their supervisors to deploy them to Chechnya, after which they’re entitled to extended vacation. Sometimes these missions end in firefights with terrorists. On May 9, 2016, for example, two militants attacked a checkpoint guarded by a Bashkir police detachment. One of the assailants detonated a suicide vest, killing two terrorists and injuring six police officers.

Several officers told Meduza that deployment to Chechnya has become even more attractive as the situation inside the Bashkir police force has deteriorated under the leadership of Roman Deyev, who came to Bashkiria in 2017 from the Zabaykalsky Krai — one of Russia's most crime-ridden regions. At his former post, Deyev distinguished himself by combating bribery in the traffic police, advocating harsh restrictions on the hours when alcohol could be sold, and denying the local existence of “AUE” (a criminal movement that allegedly targets adolescents).

Meduza’s sources say Deyev has dramatically increased police officers’ workload in pursuit of the good performance indicators he needs to catapult himself to Moscow. So far, however, he’s failed to manage this, thanks in part to the constant scandals in the police department. His biggest black eye are the three officers under investigation since October 2018 for allegedly raping a 23-year-old junior detective. The officers have already been indicted and are now under house arrest. 

Despite this story attracting national news coverage, Roman Deyev was promoted to lieutenant general in November 2018. Two months later, he fired the woman who made the rape allegations, as punishment for “drinking at work,” after an inquiry established that she consumed alcohol with the suspects before she was raped.

But many in the police say changing Bashkiria’s interior minister won’t solve the bigger structural problems. “The issue isn’t the specific ministry head. Basically, they’re all the same — they’re products of the same system. This isn’t what’s important, I think, but the fact that Bashkiria has always been a ‘red republic,’” says Ramil Rakhmatov, the editor-in-chief of the website Proufu.ru, which reports extensively on the republic’s police force. The problem here, he explains, is that Bashkiria’s police have historically exercised control over local organized crime groups. The republic today is one of the top-10 regions across Russia, when it comes to its number of registered crimes and identified criminals.

“Apparently, our supervisors are putting more pressure on their subordinates, trying to achieve those pretty indicators. And the rank-and-file officers are more obedient than in other regions,” says Rakhmatov. “Anyway, it probably boils down in part to the eastern mentality and the idea that your commanding officer is in charge, and supposedly always right.”

Ufa
dentorson / Shutterstock.com

“You could have at least taken one of the bosses with you”

In addition to commanding officers, police psychologists are also responsible for monitoring officers’ condition. During the hiring process, for example, they’re supposed to test all applicants extensively. To join Bashkiria’s police force, candidates must pass a polygraph test, undergo a psychological examination, and answer several hundred questions about their personal traits and readiness to work in stressful situations.

Suicidal tendencies are one of the main traits psychologists try to identify, though mental-health experts also acknowledge that anticipating the suicide of a colleague is extremely difficult. Whenever a police officer kills himself, the results of his psychological testing is reviewed all over again. For now, however, Bashkiria’s Interior Ministry says it’s confident that its hiring and detection methods are as good as they can be.

“Working as a police officer means regularly finding yourself in stressful situations, often when you’re off duty, away from your family and loved ones,” Rustem Salimov, the head of the Bashkir Interior Ministry’s Emotional and Psychological Support Department, told local journalists. “And it’s important to assess adequately each applicant’s strengths and capabilities. [...] Often [suicides] are due to purely personal problems. So it’s rather inaccurate to talk about failures in the system. The problem is intrapersonal.”

Police officers themselves are highly skeptical about the Interior Ministry’s psychological screening, saying that applicants prepare in advance for their examinations and can easily fool the tests. Before they’re hired, Meduza’s sources say, candidates never disclose any personal problems, and police officers receive almost no follow-up mental-health care after joining the force, both active and former law-enforcement members told Meduza

Officers say Bashkiria’s police psychologists face the same staff shortages that burden the rest of the department, and the mental-health professionals who manage to do their jobs take a purely formal approach to the work. “The most they’ll do is ask if everything is okay. And who’s going to say they go home to a madhouse?” a former Bashkir police officer explains.

One source told Meduza that many police officers don’t believe the staff psychologists who haven’t served in the field are even capable of understanding the challenges they face. Other officers say being forthcoming about struggles on the job can only lead to further problems. For example, supervisors might quietly try to terminate any potentially unbalanced staff.

A similar situation has developed in other regions of the country. “We’ve got psychologists, but they’re only needed when an officer is issued a weapon, or when someone falls out of favor with their supervisor. They exist, but only the bosses use them to punish staff by having them declared not right in the head,” says Moscow Police Trade Union leader Mikhail Pashkin.

A source close to top police officials in Bashkiria told Meduza that there is concern about the wave of suicides among officers, and poor mental-health care is believed to be the culprit, which is why the region’s Interior Ministry has introduced additional psychological screening. But rank-and-file officers haven’t exactly embraced these new measures. “Management thinks the psychologists should examine us more often and hold more workshops, but this just takes away more time from personnel, which leads to an even more stressful situation,” explains a former officer.

The Interior Ministry in Bashkiria has also advised police officers to be more open with their supervisors about problems on the job and at home, but staff say they’re nevertheless left to manage these issues alone. “When there’s a suicide, it always gets lots of attention,” says one active police officer. “But when you go to your supervisors, they say there’s nothing wrong with you, and then they tell you to get back to work.”

One officer says a “domino effect” is making matters worse, where management frequently reminds disgruntled officers about suicides on the force, supposedly to nudge staff toward killing themselves. “I think a lot of people interpret the information about the suicides as instructions,” says Meduza’s source.

A former official who used to help screen police officers for suicidal behavior told Meduza that it’s usually “ideological people” who resolve to kill themselves: “I think suicide is often a call to change the Interior Ministry's system — it’s like an act of self-immolation. The officer knows, after all, that his suicide will be discussed publicly.”

Police officers who spoke to Meduza, however, say colleagues who kill themselves don’t achieve much through these symbolic gestures. “The staff think suicides are wimps and assholes,” one officer says. “They kill themselves, but they could be taking someone from management with them.”

“Quitting would be no problem, but where would I go?”

Most of the police officers in Bashkiria who agreed to speak to Meduza say all the problems they face, including the broken psychological screening system, are typical not just locally but across the country. Five active and former police officers from three other regions — Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Novosibirsk — confirmed this to Meduza

All the officers who spoke to Meduza say they believe there are fewer suicides outside Bashkiria, but not by much, and these deaths are more likely to go unnoticed, they say, because the local media doesn’t report them as often.

Officers say it became considerably harder to hush up police suicides in Bashkiria after 2016, when the death of detective in Ufa named Ilgizar Ishmukhametov became a national news event.

From adolescence, Ishmukhametov dreamed of working as a detective, but the only job he could find when he came of age was working in private security. Then, in November 2015, he finally got his wish, when a police department in Ufa hired him as an investigator. Almost immediately, Ishmukhametov started having problems with his supervisors (the station’s investigative unit was headed by Indira Akhtyamova, the daughter of Bashkir Interior Ministry veteran Rafael Akhtyamov). The young detective’s case load was so overwhelming that he was rarely ever home, and he constantly complained to relatives about the stress of his job.

On August 22, 2016 — less than a year after he joined the force — Ilgizar Ishmukhametov shot himself, while working yet another stand-by shift. On his VKontakte page, he published a video where he explained that he was killing himself because of pressure at work. He also said his supervisors regularly told him he was incompetent, and encouraged him almost every day to quit, saying that he was “no investigator.”

Ishmukhametov said his boss, Indira Akhtyamova, was beholden to the same quota-based evaluation system that haunts police officers across Russia, and he argued that leaving the force was no escape at all: “Quitting would be no problem, but where would I go? Where would I earn a living? That’s the problem.”

The day after Ishmukhametov’s death, state investigators opened an incitement-to-suicide criminal case, but neither that probe nor an internal audit by the Interior Ministry uncovered any evidence that the officers’ superiors were responsible for him killing himself. One of Akhtyamova’s former colleagues told Mediazona that Akhtyamova filed a letter of resignation after the suicide, but senior police officials close to her father convinced her to transfer to another department. Akhtyamova agreed, and she was soon promoted.

Former and active police officers say this story is illustrative, and they refer to Ishmukhametov’s death whenever asked about the recent spree of police suicides. One former cop in Bashkiria told Meduza that the young detective’s suicide demonstrates the “vulnerability of rank-and-file staff and the impunity of their superiors.”

It’s difficult to verify these claims, and there’s no way to know for sure to what degree work conditions are directly responsible for driving Russian police officers to take their own lives. According to data collected by Professor Alexander Sukhinin, who studied 341 cases of police suicide, pressure on the job is one of the common problems officers face, but it’s hard to say how instrumental it is, because this stress can overlap with financial and family issues. 

Ufa
Spring song / Shutterstock.com

“The system protects only itself”

In recent years, journalists across Russia have written regularly about overwhelmed and overworked police officers who kill themselves. In March 2014, thirty-seven-year-old Viktor Slepchenko, a junior detective in Biysk, committed suicide in his office. Not long beforehand, the department’s new chief sharply raised the number of cases that staff were required to bring to trial. When Slepchenko objected to the new targets, his supervisor told him that he should “shoot himself, like a real officer,” if he felt incapable of meeting expectations. The next day, Slepchenko followed the advice.

In early December 2017, a detective in Irkutsk with a history of problems with his supervisors shot himself in the middle of a conference call. The next month, a 24-year-old police officer in Stavropol walked into his office and killed himself. The young man allegedly also had problems with his superiors: according to local journalists, he wanted to quit, but his supervisor refused to sign his resignation paperwork. In June 2019, a junior detective in Moscow’s Golyanovo District reported for work and committed suicide. The website Baza says the officer wanted to leave for a higher-paying job, but his superiors refused to let him go. In his suicide note, he wrote, “The brass are a bunch of faggots.”

In the overwhelming majority of these cases, investigators abandon all incitement-to-suicide charges, citing a lack of any wrongdoing. In recent years, not a single police chief has been convicted of provoking a subordinate’s suicide. 

Vladimir Vorontsov is a former police officer, the creator of the popular VKontakte community Police Ombudsman, and a defense attorney for police officers. He told Meduza that there’s a criminal case now underway that could set a new precedent and change the situation in Russia. In June 2018, a 27-year-old investigator in Langepas (a town in Russia’s Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug) killed herself in her office and left a note blaming her death on her supervisor, Dilara Murtazina.

Officer Kristina Strebeltseva’s colleagues say Murtazina buried her in internal audits and constantly humiliated her, trying to get her fired. In her suicide note, Strebeltseva called Murtazina a “scumbag,” writing, “Thought you could get me declared unfit and dismissed from the service? Fell short? Now they’ll fire you.”

Five months after Strebeltseva’s death, Murtazina was transferred to Nizhnevartovsk and demoted from department chief. The national media widely covered her case, and after another six months the Investigative Committee brought criminal charges. If convicted, Murtazina faces up to 10 years in prison for abuse of authority. Vladimir Vorontsov says the future of Russia’s investigations into police suicide hinges on Murtazina’s prosecution.

For now, however, both in Bashkiria and across the country, no one punishes high-ranking police officials who possibly bear responsibility for their subordinates' suicides. Ramil Gizatullin, an ex-cop who now works as an attorney for local police officers, told Meduza that it’s nearly impossible for ordinary officers in Bashkiria to prove their cases in court, even under simple circumstances, like seeking reinstatement after a wrongful termination.

Gizatullin says this is also a systemic problem: “The situation now is that those in charge can feel more or less untouchable, and the police officer who’s discarded by the system, or the officer who tries to speak out, is defenseless. The system protects only itself, not people.”

Story by Pavel Merzlikin, reporting from Uchaly and Ufa, and edited by Konstantin Benyumov

Translation by Kevin Rothrock