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The Monster Under The Kremlin

  • Brian Whitmore

(cartoon of the day by Sergey Elkin, RFE/RL)

(cartoon of the day by Sergey Elkin, RFE/RL)

At first glance, the massive shoot-out at Moscow's Khovanskoye Cemetery this past weekend seemed pretty retro.

What, after all, reminds us more of the 1990s than rival Russian gangs staging a deadly brawl in a turf war over control of the lucrative burial business? What is more reminiscent of the gratuitous violence and lawlessness of the first post-Soviet decade than a shooting gallery amid the tombstones?

"The wild Russian '90s, replete with murders, racketeering, and criminal-fueled chaos, are back," the magazine The American Interest opined on its Mafia State Watch blog, adding that Russian leader Vladimir "Putin has long boasted that he alone was able to help Russia get over this tumultuous period, and that he alone could guarantee stability for an unlimited amount of time."

But in addition to giving us a blast from the past, the showdown at Moscow's largest cemetery also gave us -- perhaps -- a glimpse of the future.

Because Putin never ended the gangsterism of the 1990s, he just nationalized it.

And now the Kremlin's grip may be slipping.

If Boris Yeltsin's Russia often resembled a mafia masquerading as a country, it was a mafia run by a weak, feeble, and frequently inebriated godfather. This, of course, was a recipe for chaos, as it gave Yeltsin's capos and underbosses a lot of leeway, which they used with impunity.

Putin, in contrast, sent a clear and early message to the underworld: the state is the biggest gang in town and all others are subordinate to it.

Putin's deal with the criminal underworld was simple: do your gangster stuff, but don't do it in the open; don't embarrass the Kremlin with the noisy public shoot-outs that were the hallmark of the 1990s.

And oh, by the way, if the Kremlin needs a favor someday, you had best be ready to oblige.

The shoot-out in Khovanskoye Cemetery violated Putin's first commandment to the underworld.

It also exposed the soft underbelly of the regime; it revealed the rot that forms the foundation of Putin's Power Vertical.

Organized crime groups are colluding with the authorities and with law enforcement at every level. Police are often more concerned with taxing the illegal narcotics trade than fighting it. And even things like cemeteries are bound up in Russia's sprawling political- bureaucratic-criminal web.

Russian media quoted law enforcement officials as saying that this weekend's shoot-out -- which involved enforcers from the North Caucasus attacking Central Asian migrants working at the cemetery -- was related to turf wars over who would control burial plots and maintenance work at the cemetery.

One of those arrested was a police officer. Also under investigation is the cemetery's director. And one of the main subjects of the investigation is Ritual, a state-run funeral agency.

"The language of the banditized '90s no longer describes today's power structures," journalist and political analyst Oleg Kashin wrote in Slon.ru. "The integration between criminals and the authorities is on a whole new level, as are the stakes."

And the monster under the Kremlin has been rearing its head with increasing frequency.

A warning shot came back in November 2010 in the Krasnodar region with the horrific Kushchevskaya massacre, in which 12 people, including four children, were killed by a gang led by a local mob boss with close ties to local politicians and law enforcement.

Then there was the high-profile assassination of the legendary gangster Aslan Usoyan, an old-school "vor v zakone" who was known by the moniker "Ded Khasan," in downtown Moscow in January 2013.

And last month in the village of Ivashovka in Samara Oblast, there was the slaying of Andrei Gosht, a former senior police officer, and five of his relatives -- a case Russian media reports suggested was tied to organized crime.

When the economic pie was expanding, it was easy for the Kremlin to manipulate the criminal underworld and keep it tame and well fed.

But those days are over. The pie is shrinking and only the best connected crime groups are thriving -- and the rest are getting restless, and more willing to break the rules.

The shoot-out at the Khovanskoye Cemetery might just be a harbinger.

"It's neither the opposition nor the bureaucracy, but those who are willing to die to achieve their specific goals who are showing us what a potential civil war in Russia could look like," Kashin wrote in his column in Slon.ru.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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