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Cannibalism Latest Gruesome Symptom of Russia's Social Ills

Crime: Murderer who preys on poor barely drew interest in nation with widespread poverty. Some see increase in practice as outgrowth of democracy.

May 25, 1997|VANORA BENNETT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NOVOKUZNETSK, Russia — 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.

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