Viacheslav Datsik’s recent rampage, in which he forced nearly a dozen prostitutes to march nude through the streets of Saint Petersburg, represents the nexus in which Russian nationalism, state-condoned vigilantism, sexism, and a pathological hatred of the weak collide.
When Datsik busted his way into a bordello on Vasilievsky Island early on May 18, his so-called “war on prostitution” was already in full swing. In the first video clip, released to Russia’s security service-linked Life News, his fellow travelers can be seen rounding up terrified women, one of whom was chocked against a wall to silence her screams.
The unclothed women (and a couple of johns), many visibly in tears, were then led down five city blocks to a police station, whereby befuddled officers attempted to cover them up after Datsik expressed his intention to file a report before slipping off into the night to do it all again.
But the second time around, security, perhaps being tipped off, were prepared for Datsik and crew, upon which they subdued him and his cohorts before turning them over to police.
When asked why he had led the women on a shameful procession through the streets, he told the Fontanka news portal that Russia should “know its heroes”.
Is Datsik insane? Russian authorities had previously declared he was schizophrenic before locking him up in a mental institute in 2010 following a rash of armed robberies several years prior. After escaping that facility (by allegedly tearing through its fence with his bare hands), fleeing to Norway, and shortly ending up back in custody there, a Norwegian police physician argued he was not suffering from a serious mental disorder at all. Whether or not Russian authorities agreed with that second opinion, they did opt to put the self-proclaimed Red Tarzan, the son of the Slavic god Perun, in prison for the next 5 years rather than return him to a psychiatric facility following his extradition.
Then, this past March, he was released. So what does a self-described neo-pagan, racist, cage fighter, and man of questionable mental stability do after spending half a decade behind bars?
It seems that he embraced a zeitgeist, which, during his stint in prison, had increasingly come to resemble his own strange, demiurgic dispensation of reality.
Conspiracies, paranoia, xenephobia; muscular shows of tradition disseminated via modern portals like YouTube. In Russia, the situationist’s prank has been inverted. The muckraker’s are tools of the state trying to soil the righteous; bizarre, larger than life punks and outlaws engaged in acts of avant garde civil obedience.
Is it any surprise that Stanislav Baretsky, the 400-pound former gravedigger, musician, performance artist and Leningrad-contributor most famous for publicly ripping apart beer cans with his teeth to protest foreign libations, accompanied Datsik on an earlier leg of his crusade?
The point of contrast is one that cannot be missed. Both men, corpulent cowboy’s in a lawless land, are cut from much the same cloth; a world of fenya — criminal slang — and seedy characters romanticized in ‘blatnaya pesnya’ — prison songs.
But whereas Baretsky is merely a self-aware jester, aping the affectations, argot and image of the hardened criminal for the sake of art and theatre, Datsik is the cage-fighter turned convict, unburdened by a sense of irony, restraint, and perhaps reality itself.
From the ersatz to the earnest, it is the convict’s worldview, and how it has permeated broader Russian society, that colors, if not underpins Russia’s social media age vigilantes.
For they are, to some degree, enforcing the power structure that exists in the ‘little zone’, as prison was known in Soviet times, across the ’big zone’ — society as a whole. They have made themselves the enforcers of what Natalia Antonova has called sublimated gulag culture.
As sociologist Anton Oleinik noted in ‘Russia’s Prison Subculture: From Everyday Life to State Power’, Russian prisons are organized along a three-tiered hierarchy. At the top are the blatniye: the elite who both make and enforce the rules. The second group, muzhiki — variously peasants, salt of the earth, and inhabitants of Russia’s eternally working and manly class (be it good or bad) — are the everymen battling to keep a sense of themselves in this hard world. The last tier are variously subdivided into the shestyorki, six groups who, in their own ways, have been stripped of their autonomy and suffer abuse at the hands of the prison’s ruling class. At the very bottom of that barrel is the “rab” — literally slave — a position reserved for child molesters, homosexuals (though not prison wolves) and those saddled with debts they cannot repay.
The prison authorities themselves, representing state power, have employed smotryashchiye or overseers from among the general population, ostensibly to keep order. Bur for who and what that order is kept is an entirely different matter.
Outside, a similar structure has increasingly been solidified since 2012, when Vladimir Putin’s third term as president kicked off. His focus on social conservatism and traditional values has led to a slew of witch hunts targeting both the political opposition and otherwise disempowered groups in society.
But in the big zone, it is armies of cossacks, bikers, anti-maiden protesters and extreme nationalists (if not outright nazis) with, varying degrees of state support, harassing, attacking, filming and degrading the shestyorki of Putin’s Russia —homosexuals, punk-rock supplicants, illegal immigrants and every other variety of dissident and social deviant.
It is, as always, an attack on the weak, with a camera on hand.
During the short-lived St. Petersburg crusade, one telling incident saw Baretsky stoically standing by as Datsik manhandles more than one Nigerian women, whom he accuses of “infecting Russian citizens with AIDS.”
It is reminiscent of Maxim Martsinkevich or Tesak (Hatchet)’s Occupy Pedophilia movement, which itself involved hunting down young gay men they found online, outing torturing and shaming them in horrific videos later spread through social media; all in the name of protecting children.
In both campaigns, using coercion to publicly out people existing on the margins of society was integral.
It is similar to the phenomenon of facial recognition technology being used to identify, embarrass and harass Russian women performing in pornographic movies.
As Antonova wrote, citing Snob columnist Arina Kholina, Russian attitudes towards “fallen women” are notably vicious.
“For generations, we pass down this very strange and cruel rule – a whore is inhuman,” Kholina wrote.
And then there are criminal groups with no ostensible ideological motivations who have increasingly begun targeting homosexuals for blackmail, knowing that many victims will not go to the police for fear of being outed.
In this dark world where the weak are targeted with the tacit consent of the state, it is no coincidence that both Datsik and Martsinkevich have deep links to the far right.
For these appeals to tradition, “contempt for the weak” and need to purify the nation and stem the tide of decadence through redemptive violence are among fascisms primary markers.
It should also come as no surprise that of all Russia’s family values YouTube muck rackers, Martsinkevich was actually incarcerated (though for racist remarks, not for brutalizing gay men) while Datsik risks returning behind bars.
The reason is quite simple. Datsik and Martsinkevich themselves belong to movements, that, to the degree they have not been absorbed through state sanctioned channels, represent threats to the current order.
Attacks on brothels and migrants fly in the face of Putin’s regime, which tolerates decadence in private and is, to his credit, genuinely open to Russia’s ethnic and religious diversity (so long as non-Slavic groups do not rally for greater autonomy.)
Through genuine political disenfranchisement, the government allows for controlled violence to be directed at the state’s enemies, or groups that are otherwise viewed as disposable, as a means of sublimating social tensions bred through their policies.
But those whose rage risks being redirected back at the state will quickly be neutralized.
Ironically, those who take the rhetoric of the Russian state at face value risk finding themselves on the wrong side of the law. Many of the state’s enforcers are already there.
Datsik himself is the apotheosis of exaggerated masculinity in a country of manly men primarily raised by single mothers. He is a disenfranchised chauvinist, a hard man with a soft mind and a maximalist approach to life that many Russians embrace, if only rhetorically, with a sense of pride.
But to see this figure, eight limbs of madness and a penchant for taking the government’s toxic spew of hate and paranoia to heart, is to witness a grotesque manifestation of what it has come to mean to be not only a moral agent in Putin’s Russia, but a man.