According to opinion polls, Russians still favor the death penalty for terrorists and child molesters, and the only man in Russia who was sentenced to death and managed to walk free shares that sentiment.
Aleksandr Biryukov was due to be executed in the early 1990s after murdering his army commander who had been making sexual advances on the young conscript for almost two years. Aleksandr tried to ignore the harassment, but less than two months before his conscription ended, he shot and killed his superior.
He was sent to death row and spent a few years in maximum security to reconcile himself with his fate – but then Russia introduced a moratorium on capital punishment. Aleksandr’s sentence was subsequently changed to life imprisonment.
Aleksandr’s life, however, was not over. His prospects changed dramatically when a documentary film crew came to the penal colony. The shots of Aleksandr hugging his mother after almost 10 years apart moved audiences worldwide and eventually led to his pardon. His sentence was cut to 15 years.
The director of the film Aleksandr Gutman says that only when this happened, he, for the first time in 20 years of filmmaking, realized how powerful cinema really is.
“I don't believe in miracles in general,” Gutman confessed. “But after all this happened I understood that cinema can sometimes help people.”
Even though the chance encounter changed the two Aleksandrs’ lives indefinitely, both of them have very different views on capital punishment.
Aleksandr Gutman is strongly against the death penalty:
“Firstly, because we do not give life to a person, so we do not have the right to take it away. Secondly – mistakes can be made. And because of a mistake an innocent person may die. It is for this reason alone that we should repeal death penalty.”
However, Aleksandr Biryukov, who looked death in the eye, is on the other side of the fence:
“There are crimes people commit when they are enraged or drunk – that’s one thing,” Biryukov explains, “But when a person consciously kills or tortures, when he molests young kids, when he trespasses all the moral boundaries – I do not think he should be allowed to live.”
Public opinion polls suggest most Russians are strongly in favor for capital punishment for serial killers, terrorists and rapists of children, but the country’s leadership has opted against the death penalty on human rights grounds.
Conditions in Russian prisons have long turned the death sentence debate into a choice between a horrible end and an endless horror. While those in favor of abolishing capital punishment usually put forward moral arguments, opponents say that, behind bars, death is sometimes more merciful than life.