Throughout the 1990s and for a good part of the current decade, Vladimir Barsukov appeared to be the true ruler of Russia's second city regardless of who was formally in power.
Officially he served since 1998 as vice president of the St. Petersburg Fuel Company. But Barsukov -- who was known as Vladimir Kumarin until he changed his name in the late 1990s just prior to that appointment -- derived his true power as the alleged leader of a highly feared and politically connected criminal gang called the "Tambovskaya gruppirovka" or the Tambov Gang.
By the late 1990s, the Tambov Gang reportedly held stakes in much of the St. Petersburg's petroleum, real estate, and banking sectors. They were also believed to control much of the commercial traffic from Russia's ports in St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad, Arkhangelsk, and Murmansk.
In 1998, Barsukov denied the existence of the Tambov Gang, telling a Russian interviewer: "We don't conduct any meetings and we don't have membership payments."
Barsukov was arrested in August 2007 at his St. Petersburg home following a stealth operation by a special team of OMON riot police brought in from Moscow especially for the job. Local law enforcement was kept in the dark.
He has been accused of illegally seizing various properties and businesses in Russia's second city, forming a criminal gang, and organizing contract killings.
Barsukov's trial began earlier this month after being moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow, reportedly to protect the defendant's life.
Since Barsukov's arrest, various interpretations have circulated about why the Kremlin threw such a well-connected crime boss under the bus (and make no mistake, nobody as big as Barsukov takes a fall in Russia without a green light from the Kremlin).
Shortly after the arrest, St. Petersburg-based investigative journalist Andrei Konstantinov, who writes extensively on organized crime, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the Kremlin sees Barsukov as a relic of a bygone era who needed to be removed:
Other reports speculated that Barsukov -- who had close ties to key figures in Vladimir Putin's Kremlin -- was a victim of the so-called "siloviki war" of 2007 between two clans of security service veterans in the former president's inner circle who were vying for power, influence, and access to state assets.
There has also been a fair amount of reporting over the years -- most of it in foreign media -- trying to unravel Barsukov's alleged ties to Putin himself during his tenure as St. Petersburg's deputy mayor in the 1990s.
Whatever the real reason for Barsukov's fall, his is certainty a trial to keep an eye on.
-- Brian Whitmore