Gratuitous Violence and Gratuitous Acts: Defining Bespredel

Eliot Borenstein, University of New York

In the late 1990s, Russian television viewers could treat themselves to twice-daily helpings of the long-running American police procedural Law and Order. In its Russian translation, "Zakon i poriadok" had the ring of a cruel joke to post-Soviet viewers, since domestic television and the print media were quite effectively constructing a crime-ridden Russia in which neither "Law" nor "Order" were anywhere to be found: the world of bespredel. At its most extreme, bespredel inspires horror precisely because it is chaotic, random, and without motivation.

"Bespredel" is a particularly difficult word to render in English. Literally meaning "without limits" or "without boundaries" , this noun is used freely and fluidly in contemporary Russian discourse, accruing new contents and contexts over time. One of the few features that unite all its various uses and definitions is that it is always something to be lamented and decried (even when this disapprobation barely conceals the exploitation and sensationalism that keep the thematics of bespredel alive). The term "bespredel" seems to originate, appropriately enough, in the world of organized crime and the national prison camp system (the "zone"). In this context, Vadim Volkov defines "bespredel" as the "unjustified use of violence" (195), the violations of the norms of criminal world. Here bespredel, with its literal lack of boundaries, actually functions to delineate the limits of proper lawlessness: the declaration that an enemy is engaging in bespredel effectively makes him an outlaw among outlaws. By violating the rules of good criminal conduct, the bespredel'shchik in effect also suspends these rules as they relate to himself. Reminiscent of Agamben's "state of exception," the ability of organized crime to identify and punish those who threaten to disorganize crime constitutes the criminal leaders' authority. Bespredel is the mathematical limit of violence, always to be approached, but never to be reached. When invoked in film and fiction, bespredel also transposes a great power nostalgia for the orderly days of Soviet power to the context of crime: the "good" thieves respect the laws of the criminal fraternity, while the gang leaders of today are simply scum who do not know the meaning of the word "respect." Ironically, this criminal generation gap replicates the central anxiety of perestroika: what is wrong with kids today?

Bespredel is a nightmare version of the French existentialist notion of the "gratuitous act" as nothing but "gratuitous violence." Moreover, bespredel is a demonic inversion of everything that is good in Russia’s own mythic self-conception: the boundlessness, inherent in the culture's long-standing geographic metaphors. This paper is based on an examination of Russian popular crime novels, "true crime," the daily crime chronicles on central television, and the more sensationalist newspapers.