Amid Public Outrage, the Kremlin Shuts Doors of Russia’s Death Rows


When serial killer Vladimir N. Retunsky was sentenced to death last month for the murder of eight young women and girls, the victims’ families and friends offered to carry out his punishment on the spot.

“Give him to us!” they shouted in court as a panel of judges handed down the sentence. “We’ll tear him to pieces!”

Under heavy police guard, the murderer was hauled off to death row, but he wasn’t there for long. Earlier this month, President Boris N. Yeltsin commuted his sentence to life in prison. It was the final step in a long-running effort by the Kremlin to abolish capital punishment.


Retunsky, 49, was the last man facing execution in Russia when he received his presidential reprieve. Over the past few months, Yeltsin has commuted the sentences of 715 other death row inmates, sentencing them to 25 years or life in prison. Yeltsin’s acts of clemency fulfill a 1996 decree he issued banning capital punishment--an order often ignored by judges.

An Indifference to What the Public Wants

Unlike California, where the state began executing death row inmates again in 1992 by popular demand, Yeltsin has simply ignored overwhelming public support for capital punishment and blocked executions in Russia for nearly three years.

The president is motivated not just by mercy but by a desire to bring Russia into the European mainstream and improve ties with the democracies of Western Europe, where the death penalty is banned.

“The decision to commute the last death sentence in Russia is more of a foreign policy move than a domestic one,” said retired Col. Gennady N. Oreshkin, who once headed Russia’s notorious Butyrskaya prison. “It is not a gesture of goodwill toward the convicts on death row or a manifestation of humaneness. It is a carefully calculated step expected to impress a foreign audience.”

Russia had loudly criticized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s bombing campaign of Yugoslavia but has worked quietly to maintain and build economic links to many of NATO’s member nations.

In particular, Yeltsin’s commutation of the 716 death sentences was designed to maintain Russia’s membership in the Council of Europe, a 41-member organization that sets human rights standards in Europe. The council requires that member nations ban capital punishment within three years of joining.

“If Russia is determined to move along the path of becoming a more civilized country, then abolishing capital punishment should become one of the steps toward achieving this goal,” said Anatoly I. Pristavkin, chairman of Russia’s Presidential Clemency Commission. “The Council of Europe prodded us a little bit to move faster toward civilization.”

Human Rights Linked to Financial Assistance

The little-known organization has significant influence in Europe. Any country that wants to join the 15-member European Union, for example, must first meet the council’s human rights standards.

“The Council of Europe is seen as very prestigious,” said Diederik Lohman, director of Human Rights Watch’s Moscow office. “It’s a political organization that has very strong credentials on human rights issues. For Russia, it’s really important to keep these kind of ties to the West, with an eye to financial aid.”

Russia joined the council in February 1996--a time when relations with the West were far better than today and Yeltsin was seeking international support for his reelection bid that summer.

The Duma, the Communist-dominated lower house of parliament, blocked any attempt to halt executions, arguing that Russia needed strong punishment to keep social order. But Yeltsin, who possesses vast powers under the constitution, simply decreed an end to capital punishment--an order later backed up by the Constitutional Court, which he appointed.

“I think that our state exceeded the limit of executions a long time ago,” Pristavkin said. “The abolition of capital punishment makes Russia more humane, and in this sense it is aimed more at shaping the children’s mentality--they will learn to live in a country where the state does not kill its own citizens.”

Pristavkin, however, holds a minority view. Most Russians believe in tough penalties for criminals, and sentiment in favor of capital punishment runs high. Prisons are harsh, tuberculosis is rampant, and a prison term of 10 years can easily be a death sentence.

In Retunsky’s case, chief Judge Mikhail A. Avdeyev said the three-judge panel knowingly violated the moratorium and the high court ruling because the killer’s crimes were so heinous.

Between 1990 and 1996, he said, the truck driver prowled the Voronezh region, kidnapping girls as young as 14, raping them, strangling them and burying them in the woods. He showed no remorse at his trial, Avdeyev said, and the judges were unanimous in defying Yeltsin and sentencing Retunsky to die.

“A murderer of innocent women and children should not live,” Avdeyev said. “We should not just blindly follow the pattern of Western countries, borrow their legal practices and apply them to Russia. By executing criminals like Retunsky, we will protect society from a tide of unbridled violence.”

The relatives and friends of Retunsky’s victims who crowded into the courtroom for the sentencing May 6 were in no mood to accept anything less than the death penalty. Avdeyev said some were worried that Yeltsin’s moratorium on executions would land the murderer a prison term of as little as 15 years.

After the sentence was read, police had to form a human corridor to get Retunsky safely from the courtroom.

“They wanted him to be executed right there and right that second,” the judge recalled. “If we had not [sentenced him to death], I am afraid we could have had the same fate as him. The people would have torn us to pieces.”


Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.