Bad news: official Russian crime data are under-reports; good news: Russian academics are digging out the real data

There is a long and inglorious tradition of under-reported crime rates in Russia. In part, this sometimes reflects the state’s unwillingness to admit the scale of the problem; in part, the police themselves choosing to ignore crimes or report them as being less serious than they really are; and in part, ‘latent crime’ resulting from public unwillingness to turn to the authorities, whether out of mistrust or simply because they don’t think there is any point. Together, these can lead to all kinds of anomalies in the apparent crime rate.

For example, in Soviet times the very brief reign of GenSec Yuri Andropov (November 1982-February 1984) apparently saw a dramatic spike in the crime rate. The 1982 figures rose by a sedate 2.9%, to 1,655,932. In 1983, though, they soared by 21.8%, reaching 2,016,514. In 1984, though, the rate of increase had fallen to 0.6%, with 2,029,144 registered crimes. Was Andropov’s time an interlude of chaotic criminality? Not at all. In part, the sudden increase reflected his law and order campaign, a crack-down on labour indiscipline and petty black-marketeering as well as official corruption. However, it also reflected a clear message from the Kremlin that the official data, falsified for so long, needed to be brought into greater harmony with reality. A large share of this ‘increase’ was actually an adjustment of the figures after years of artificially low increases which had opened up a growing gulf between the crime rate and the crime reality.

In this context, modern Russian crime figures have presented some interesting puzzles, not least the convenient reductions which have often failed to coincide with the admittedly-patchy data one can gather from local studies and anecdotal accounts. Russia today is much safer than in the wold 1990s, but while police officials and experts have admitted there has been a resurgence in contract killing, especially in the straightened times since the economic slowdown, this has not been evident in the murder rates. Furthermore, if the problem is being dealt with so well, why is Medvedev so desperate to reform the police — and why is Judge Valerii Zorkin, chair of the Constitutional Court, warning about the “growing criminalization of Russian society’?

One of the more uplifting and encouraging Russian traditions, though, has been in the professionalism of many within the police research sector and their willingness to discuss the world as it really is. This was evident in tsarist times, when they were often the most outspoken critics of the grim conditions of the urban working poor (and how this bred political dissatisfaction), it was sometimes visible in Soviet times (even in the secret but unexpectedly impartial opinion surveys carried out by Andropov’s KGB), and it sounds as if it is evident now in a compendious study from a research group from the General Prosecutor’s Office Academy headed by Prof. Sergei Inshakov. This concludes that, contrary to the 13% fall in 2010 announced by Investigations Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin, there has been a steady 2.4% rise, and the total number of crimes last year was not the 3 million officially reported but fully 26 million.

To take the example of the murder rate, which officially had fallen to 18,200 in 2009, the report notes that this only reflects murder investigations, and accounting for reported murders where no cases were opened brings that year’s figure to 46,200. In addition, though, 77,900 unidentified dead bodies were found that year and another 48,500 people were reported missing. While many of these would have died from natural causes or simply started new lives, the official rate clearly fails to convey the true scale of the problem.

In the name of transparency, I must I confess I have not yet had the chance to look at this report myself, and so am relying largely on second-hand accounts of what it says. I look forward to a deeper delve into this in due course. But for me, what is striking is not the news that there is credible evidence that the official crimes rates underplay the real problem but that there are those in Russia — and within the realms of ‘law-enforcement academe’ — who are willing to go beyond both the official line and a widespread unwillingness to turn to the police, and explore the true state of affairs.

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