Sixteen years ago, Vladimir Barsukov was untouchable.
He lorded over a massive criminal and commercial empire. He had top politicians in his pocket. He had top politicians whacked. And he was widely considered to be one of the most powerful men in Russia's second-largest city.
Today he is expendable.
That's how it goes with Russian gangsters and criminal justice. And it's why contract killings take so long to solve. You always have to wait for the politics to change -- for the untouchables to become the expendables.
It's something to bear in mind while following the twists, turns, contradictions, and obfuscations of the investigation into Boris Nemtsov's assassination.
According to Russian media reports, Barsukov is about to be fingered as the contractor of one of the most shocking assassinations of the 1990s: the November 20, 1998, slaying of State Duma Deputy and human rights campaigner Galina Starovoitova.
LIke the Nemtsov hit, Starovoitova's assassination gripped the nation, shook the elite, and was supposed to change everything.
And never mind that it took these investigative geniuses 16 years and four months to figure out what every serious journalist in St. Petersburg intuitively suspected from the very start. Hey, better late than never.
In fairness, it would have been nearly impossible to take Barsukov down in the late 1990s. He was much too powerful.
Known as Vladimir Kumarin before he changed his name, Barsukov led St. Petersburg's most feared, ruthless, and politically connected crime syndicate -- the Tambovskaya Gruppirovka, or Tambov Gang.
But he was much more than just a gangster and Tambov was much more than just a gang. Barsukov was known as the "Night Governor" and the Tambovskaya Gruppirovka was something of a shadow government.
Every serious politician in Russia's second city -- including one Vladimir Putin -- had to deal with him one way or another.
Barsukov was vice president of the St. Petersburg Fuel Company. The Tambov Gang held stakes in much of the St. Petersburg's petroleum, real estate, and banking sectors. They also controlled much of the commercial traffic from Russia's ports in St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Arkhangelsk, and Murmansk.
And Barsukov had his people strategically placed throughout the St. Petersburg political elite.
He had much of the city's police brass in his pocket. He was close to Viktor Cherkesov, then head of the St. Petersburg branch of the FSB. And the governor at the time of Starovoitova's assassination, Vladimir Yakovlev, was widely believed to be Barsukov's man.
Starovoitova was assassinated in the stairwell of her St. Petersburg apartment building at a time when she was locked in a bitter political battle with Yakovlev -- one that threatened Barsukov's interests.
For nearly a decade, the investigation went nowhere. In 2005, a court in St. Petersburg convicted eight suspects for taking part in the assassination, but the mastermind and the contractor were never identified.
Until last week.
According to reports in Russian media, Mikhail Glushchenko, a former lawmaker who is serving a prison sentence for extortion, signed a plea bargain on March 26 in which he agreed to admit organizing the assassination and to finger Barsukov as the person who ordered the hit.
Unlike in 1998, taking down Barsukov now is easy.
He's no longer a player. He's no longer powerful. He long ago ceased to be useful to the authorities. In fact, he's no longer even a free man. In 2009 he was sentenced to 14 years in prison on a variety of charges.
And he became expendable because he's a remnant of a bygone era -- one in which the state was Balkanized and was just one mafia competing with various others. Today, Russia is still a mafia state -- but the state is the only mafia that matters. The functions Barsukov and the Tambov Gang fulfilled in the 1990s have been reclaimed by the authorities.
Likewise, perhaps sometime down the road -- it may take 16 years; it may take less; it may take more -- the truth about who ordered Nemtsov's assassination will finally come out. It will come out if and when the politics change and the contractor, be it Ramzan Kadyrov or somebody else, becomes expendable.
By then, of course, the Nemtsov assassination will have largely faded from memory-- like the Starovoitova assassination has today. Its shock and significance will be largely forgotten.
And of course, there will be new shocking contract killings ordered by the new untouchables. And they too will get away with murder -- until they become expendable too. And on and on it will go.
-- Brian Whitmore