All over Russia there are graves bearing the images of men in leather jackets, holding BMW or Mercedes car keys, sometimes smoking, occasionally sporting gang-related tattoos, mysterious to the uninitiated in their wording and imagery.
The deceased are also often portrayed draped in heavy gold rings and necklaces. As for the graves themselves, religious iconography is insignificant, almost an afterthought, as if the departed were unable to contemplate the existence of an authority higher than their own.
Before their funerals, many of the men’s bodies, mangled and scarred by the bullets and bombs that had caused their deaths, were worked on by embalmers, in many cases highly trained experts who were at one time employed to work on Lenin’s corpse.
These graves are the final resting places of the criminal gangs that ruled Russia during the 1990s, men who rose from nothing to control vast sums and influence. Moving from the sale of imported black market jeans in the Soviet Union to the rape and plunder of the fledgling Russian Federation’s natural resources, these gangsters were flashy, violent, and usually short-lived, assassinations their favored way of solving their many business disputes.
Referred to interchangeably as New Russians / the Mafia, they were recognizable by their flat-shaven heads, short tempers, and for taking an absurd pride in throwing vast amounts of cash around.
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.
Olga Matich, professor of Slavic Studies at Berkeley University in California, wrote an article on such mobster graves in the late 1990s, and I called her from Moscow to discuss the topic. Although more used to discussing the finer points of Russian literature, she was more than happy to speak.
“That article, although it’s not usually the kind of thing I write about, became my most well-known piece in Russia,” she told me. “It helped Russians make some sense of the menacing-looking graves that stood next to the resting places of their loved ones.”
I asked her why she thought the phenomenon had come about, just what it was that had led the mobster’s relatives to spend thousands of dollars on such graves, to adorn them with shiny pictures of BMWs and other indicators of the ‘high life’.
“That whole period in Russia was over-the-top,” Olga explained. “There was a kind of grandiosity about the mobsters, and their graves, naturally enough, reflected their lives. In a way though, I think there was also a sense of wanting to scare ordinary people.”
“The 1990s was an amazing time in Russia, an era when everything was possible. Now, though, things have become a lot more regulated, and that kind of ostentatious display of wealth, that gaudy flashiness, is a lot less common.”
Olga is right. When I first arrived in Moscow in the 1990s, the reality depicted by these granite images of bad taste and casual violence was still very much a part of Russian life. But Russia changes fast. Now, the rich have found style and the arts, and good taste has become the new indicator of wealth. Indeed, the astronomical sums amassed by Russia’s new elite have entered the realm of the super fortune; their endless zeros cannot realistically be imagined, and, as a result, the oligarchs and their kin enjoy a relatively low profile. That is, of course, if they haven’t fled the country or been imprisoned.
Of course, there are those who maintain that things are a lot simpler, that the criminal classes have wised up and bought into big business and politics, legitimizing their activities.
“The Russian criminal class and government structures have mingled and interbred to such an extent as to be barely indistinguishable from one another,” says Andrei Bystrov, a Muscovite businessman acquaintance. “The criminals are now in the top positions, and as a result they try to keep a lower profile.”
“Just like in the West,” he added, laughing.
For anyone interested in more on Russia’s criminal subculture, check out the film Brat (Brother) by Alexei Balabanov and the excellent documentary The Mark of Cain by Alix Lambirt.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.