Cannibalism Latest Gruesome Symptom of Russia's Social Ills

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They talk rough and walk tough. But under the grime on their faces Dima, Sasha, Lyosha and Vitya have sweet smiles. The homeless street kids, with their skinny legs, are the picture of vulnerability.

They live in cellars. They beg and sniff glue. And they keep out of the way of adults who only mean trouble: the drunken parents, crazed down-and-outs or the police, who round them up every few weeks.

In return, most grown-ups ignore the ragged children underfoot in this depressed Siberian steel town, one of the many places that Russia's new capitalism forgot. Poverty is etched on every face here, and hard times have bred a harsh neglect.

But one person in Novokuznetsk did take a passionate interest in children like these. He believed they were the detritus of Russian democracy, the future drug addicts and prostitutes of the new freedom.

So Sasha Spesivtsev killed them. His last victim said before dying that Spesivtsev and his mother also cooked some of his victims--one of at least a dozen outbreaks of cannibalism reported in Russia in the past five years.

Now Spesivtsev, a mustachioed 27-year-old with a furtive grin, is in jail awaiting trial on 19 counts of murder. The unemployed man has admitted that he lured his drifter victims home from the station or the mean streets nearby. Body parts washed up in the river Aba last summer, near the school where his mother, Lyudmila Spesivtseva, worked.

"He came up to me once, but I ran away," Lyosha, an 11-year-old urchin, recalls of Spesivtsev. "He was always around. We all knew what he looked like."

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In other places, the brutality of these killings--and the mere suggestion of cannibalism--might have created a sensation, as did the 1991 arrest of Jeffrey Dahmer, a Milwaukee serial killer and cannibal. But there has been no outcry in Russia. Here, such crimes are surprisingly common, always in rundown provincial towns, almost always among the unemployed, the drink-sodden and the uneducated.

Last August, the Itar-Tass news agency matter-of-factly reported the arrest of a man found frying human flesh in the southern town of Krasnodar.

A day earlier, police in the Siberian city of Kemerovo said a suspect had confessed to killing a man and cooking him to eat with his drinking partners.

In another Siberian town, Barnaul, 24-year-old convict Andrei Maslich was given a death sentence in December for killing and trying to eat a cellmate, Interfax news agency reported. And there are many more such reports.

Konstantin A. Bogdanov, a folklore expert at the Academy of Science, attributes these cannibal cases to a society rooted in Marxism, and compares them with "Freudianized" accounts of sexual abuse in the U.S. media.

"In the States," he said, "people are trying to move on from the thinking of Sigmund Freud, the idea that people's basic mechanism of interaction is sexual. So an American who wants to express his rage at his society will typically do so through sexually deviant behavior--rape, child abuse, sexual harassment.

"But here in Russia, what we're all trying to escape from is Marxism," he went on. "And Marx believed that people always interacted socially, as classes or groups. When people here want to find a way to manifest rage against their surroundings, they express their deviance socially. And what could be a purer form of antisocial behavior than eating people?"

Unlike Bogdanov, most Russians are little aware of the incidents of a crime as grotesque as cannibalism. Russia is divided into social castes so separate that the concerns of one group scarcely touch those of another. Although stories of underclass crime do make it into big-city papers, it is usually only as filler items.

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Outside Novokuznetsk, few Russians have heard of Spesivtsev. In town, anyone not directly affected by him has ignored the story. "People have taken it quietly. Everyone here's too busy trying to get hold of the next crust of bread to worry about Spesivtsev," prison governor Vladimir K. Romanov said.

Even the families of the victims are taking their loss in seemingly passive fashion. They don't know how to lobby. They don't expect justice. Spesivtsev's victims were all drawn from the underclass: village girls whose parents are semiliterate workers at dying factories, runaways, dropouts. Unlike them, Spesivtsev came from a family which had friends in high places in town.

The latest outrage is just one more proof that the poor are at the mercy of every whim, however cruel, of the neglectful rulers of their social hierarchy: the maniac who preys on them, the police who investigate at a snail's pace, the chronically inefficient judicial system and the bribe-taking bureaucrats who are too busy protecting their own to enforce the law that theoretically protects the poor.

Novokuznetsk, site of five enormous steelworks, hasn't done well under democracy. The smog that used to wreathe city buildings has dissipated but only because the giant factory chimneys no longer belch out smoke from the production of steel for grandiose Soviet building projects.

The coal-mining towns all around are bankrupt. It is hard to find anyone on the street who has been paid his salary or pension in the nationwide wages crisis of the past six months. But no one is starving. Somehow, people get by. They take second jobs. There are sales kiosks on every corner. A local mafia flourishes. The most drastic change wrought by the new order is that the poor feel defenseless.

One neighbor, pensioner Lidiya V. Vedenina, called the police early last summer to complain about the smell of death and the deafening music coming out of Spesivtsev's apartment. She begged investigators to check him out.

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No one came, although the police were supposedly scouring the town to find the person who was throwing body parts into the river; Spesivtsev had a criminal record that might have made him a prime suspect--a teenage girl was found dead in his apartment in 1991.

Police didn't break down his door until four months later, and even then it was only because plumbers complained he wouldn't let them in to mend a broken pipe.

Inside, they found Spesivtsev's last victim, Olya Galtseva, 15. She was dying on the couch of stab wounds to the stomach. Nearby were a headless corpse in the bathtub and a skeletal rib cage in the main room.

Olya and two 13-year-old friends had disappeared a month earlier. Police and doctors had ignored their frantic parents' appeals to find the three girls, insisting that the trio must have run away with boys to drink and take drugs.

Before dying from her injuries, Olya told the police a more pitiful story: She had gone out with her friends to buy batteries and bumped into Lyudmila Spesivtseva, weighed down with shopping bags. The three girls had helped Spesivtseva home. Once there, mother, son and a fierce Newfoundland dog trapped them inside.

Because they are from the bottom of the social hierarchy, the girls' parents say bitterly, police and investigators shortchanged them when their daughters disappeared and now are not bothering to follow up on the killings.

Last winter, police put off digging for missing bodies until the snow melted. Now, it has melted, but investigator Alexander V. Shelkov said digging had not yet started. Pleading a lack of money, police have not yet done genetic tests to establish identities for the body parts that have been found.

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Lyudmila M. Barashkina, whose daughter Zhenya was one of the 13-year-olds who disappeared with Olya, says, "We keep trying to see the prosecutor to find out what they're up to, but his secretary just says, 'You're only coming in over my dead body,' and throws us out. And that new investigator . . . hasn't bothered with us at all," she said.

Alone among the threadbare inhabitants of 53 Pioneer Ave.--a rough apartment block where lights and elevators work only sporadically and graffiti covers the walls--the Spesivtsev family was relatively well educated.

Spesivtsev's older sister Nadezhda, 34, worked as a secretary to a town judge, according to a local journalist, Mikhail Zelenchukov: "The mother worked there for a while too. They were always at the prosecutor's office and in court. They helped with investigations. They're legally educated."

Now Barashkina is worried that Nadezhda Spesivtseva's acquaintance with investigators will slow the case. "They've got no interest in solving it," she says.

The facts bear out her fears: Although neighbors saw the Spesivtseva daughter enter the flat while the three girls were imprisoned there, she has been given psychiatric tests and quietly freed. If she appears at her brother's trial at all, Shelkov says, it will only be as a witness.

In the meantime, no one in Novokuznetsk wants to discuss what sent Spesivtsev over the edge. "I can't say a thing. Ask the investigators," was the only comment from Gennady P. Shuryayev, chief doctor at the local psychiatric institute.

But what is certain is that he was not hungry. His mother and sister both had jobs. Police found stacks of building materials--linoleum, lightbulbs--in his home, suggesting some sort of traffic in stolen goods.

So why did he break the ultimate taboo? In his jail cell, Spesivtsev passes his days writing poems and reflections on the evils of Russia's new permissive democracy, which he believes has turned the safely regulated Soviet world he once knew into a violent free-for-all of corruption, vice and cheating politicians.

Asked by police how he justified his crimes, Spesivtsev answered with a shrug: "How many people has our democracy destroyed? . . . If people thought about that, there wouldn't be any of this filth. But what can you do?"

The ritualized eating of people was widespread in the ancient world. A "cult of the skull" existed in pre-Christian Siberia, according to Lyudmila A. Ivanova, director of history at the Institute of Ethnography and Social Anthropology.

Ivanova says cannibalism, or anthropophagy, persisted until this century among remote tribes in Papua New Guinea. In modern times, former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin boasted of eating human flesh, as did Jean-Bedel Bokassa, the former self-proclaimed emperor of the Central African Republic. The practice is seen as so repulsive, however, that it has become the mark of the outcast from humanity.

Only extreme disasters--famines, sieges, plane crashes--have created such pressure for survival that people have broken the taboo. And 70 years of Soviet hardship-- revolution, war and political repression--have left Russians with a bleak legacy of disasters unmatched elsewhere in the Western world.

Starving peasants ate human flesh during a famine in the Volga region in 1921, which was brought on by brutal grain requisitioning during the civil war that followed the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.

Writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn is among those who refer to the practice among criminals escaping from the Soviet gulags of taking with them a political prisoner, known as a "cow," to eat on the way to freedom if the going got tough.

More cases were reported in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) during World War II, when Nazi forces blockaded the city for three years to starve out its inhabitants.

But none of these tragedies of Soviet history explain people like Spesivtsev taking up cannibalism, says Russian anthropologist Mikhail A. Chlenov. Times are different. There are no longer any wars, sieges, famines or catastrophes.

"What we're talking about here is different: a sense of social crisis. . . . Around Novokuznetsk there's a coal basin on the verge of collapse, a great sense of social tension, a feeling that the society people used to live in is breaking down," Chlenov said. "In this situation, psychiatric illnesses can begin which are connected with the general state of society."

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Spesivtsev is now undergoing psychiatric testing to see if he is sane enough to stand trial. Doctors say he will probably be sent to Moscow for further tests next year. His mother, who has withdrawn into herself and will not speak, is imprisoned in a separate cell.

According to prison governor Romanov, psychiatrists have not yet found any reason to declare the now docile Spesivtsev criminally insane. But local journalist Zelenchukov recalls an interview with him which showed an unhealthy willingness to consider human flesh as a commodity to be traded.

"As we were leaving, Spesivtsev asked us if we couldn't organize the sale of . . . his head," Zelenchukov said. "He thought some institute might want to study his brain after his execution and might pay, in advance, in cigarettes."

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