Iced but Not Forgotten: Immortalizing the Russian Mafia

by M-Gillies

The most famous “gangster graves” in Russia are in Yekaterinburg, the birthplace of Boris Yeltsin. The city’s Uralmash cemetery is the resting place of many of the mobsters killed in a 1990s battle between rival gangs for control of strategic resources.

There’s something morbidly disarming about the two cemeteries in the city of Yekaterinburg – in the industrial Uralmash area of Yekaterinburg is a tree-line necropolis of unusual headstones. Not a single one is traditional in the way that headstones have ever been seen. Many, if not all of them are expensive black marble slabs – each erected in a row. In another cemetery, there is life-sized bust of man loathed by many, his grave is monitored 24-hours a day, seven days a week by a closed circuit cameras,  and surrounding his grave, are headstones with coloured portraits etched into the granite.

If one thing can be noted about the similarities of these two cemeteries, it’s the prominence of its residence and the consistency of the graves – the larger-than-life photographs etched into granite, with the tombstone images depicting hardened men in Hawaiian shirts and leather jackets. Others, a moody man holding a cigarette in his hand poised in front of a vehicle, while another holds in his hand car keys to his beloved Mercedes.

These are the graves of young fighters who once made up the brawn of the Russian gangs; collecting protection money, kneecapping those who would not pay up and planting explosives in the cars of their rivals. Now they stand, immortalized as larger-than-life shadowy figures etched into the granite of tombstones of their final resting place, an intimidating reminder of what their lives meant to them. This is the Uralmash Cemetery in Yekaterinburg, Russia, home of the notorious dead members of the Russian Mob.

But it isn’t just the one group of Russian mafioso inhabiting this cemetery, but rather two.

It was during the end of the Soviet Union, in 1991. The city of Yekaterinburg became the forefront of criminal activity, earning itself a name as The Gangster Capital of Russia, and becoming known as the most violent city in Russia with shootouts and contract killings occurring regularly. With the privatization of the state-command economy and the breakdown of the rigid economic and political structures of the old Soviet totalitarian regime, a new era of economic growth rose from the smoky ashes of a revolutionary horizon – the illegal export of raw, nonferrous and rare metals, jewels and timber.

In order to prosper from this new economical opportunity, two criminal organizations emerged within the city of Yekaterinburg; the Uralmash and the Central group. It was these two organizations that would change the way the mafia operated. However, with two opposing criminal groups rivalling for dominance, violence soon began to sprawl to new heights.

The real war began in 1992, when the Uralmash criminal network (who were by far the strongest in the region) devised a plan through creating a special team to handle the physical elimination of the leaders of rival organized criminal groups By recruiting former special-forces training instructors and trainees from the military, the Uralmash soon prepared themselves for the eradication of their rivals, but the action wasn’t met kindly by the Central network.

Using the same tactics, the Central network created its own hit team, forcing the two feuding gangs to resort to more sophisticated and violent means of eliminating their competition. However, after years of vendetta influenced killings, the final blow came after members of the Uralmash shot the leader of the Centrals in the yard of his house.

As backlash to the murder of Mikhail Kuchin, leader of the Central network, Alexandr Khabarov, leader of the Uralmash was arrested. However, before his trial had even begun, he was found in his cell strung up by the neck in what has been said to be a suicide, but what others believed to be something more.

After his death, Khabarov was given a tomb, complete with a life-sized bust, securing his status as Uralmash’s most prominent criminal. Because public opinion of the man was so negative, CCTV camera’s had been installed in a nearby tree to protect his bust from vandalism.

Meanwhile, on the edge of the city of Yekaterinburg, close to where Europe meets Asia, is the Shirokorechenskoye cemetery, amongst the war veterans, surgeons and athletes, lie the group of 20-30 year old men who were gunned down during the first half of the 20th century. It is here, where the members of the Central network rest, their tombstones extravagantly constructed, and expertly engraved to contain life-sized portraits of those residing in the graves. Their stares peer back at onlookers – some smiling, others stern – each posed to showcase their status as proud members of the criminal organization.

However, it’s the tombstone of Mikhail Kuchin, Ekaterinburg’s Central Gang kingpin, who after being gunned down in a hail of bullets in the yard of his house in 1994, at the age of 34, that is the most predominate of all. Standing at ten-feet high, the malachite tombstone of Kuchin was purported to cost $64,000 and is encrusted with precious stones, a symbolic gesture toward both Kuchin’s status as a powerful brigade leader and Ekaterinburg’s control over the precious stone industry.

But it wasn’t just his status as a powerful leader that earned him such a lavish final resting. Kuchin’s widow, Nadezhda, who hosted a lavish feast at his grave on his birthday claimed that she wanted his tomb to be “the envy of those who ordered his murder.”

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