Shirokorechenskoe Cemetery, located on the southwestern outskirts of Yekaterinburg, Russia, is the last abode of many famous local people, including artists, scientists and heroes from the World War II, often adorned with unusual funerary sculptures, gem-embedded headstones and laser engravings of the deceased.
But in a particular section of the cemetery, in the shade of the pines, there are some of the most elaborate funerary monuments: huge granite gravestones are engraved with life-sized, rather disquieting, photo-realistic images depicting gruesome looking men, dressed in expensive clothes.
These characters often flaunt gold chains and tattoos, or hold the keys of their Mercedes, often depicted against the background of the tombstone, or sometimes they are with their girlfriend.
These extravagant tombs belong to gangsters who died violent deaths during the “gangland wars” of the turbulent 90s.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rapid transition to a free market economy, the entire Soviet bloc, and Russia in particular, experienced a period of anarchy, which caused a strong expansion of organized crime.
The American journalist James Ruth explains the tormented transition of Russia towards democracy, and the rise of the mafia:
“Many of the opportunities for the growth of organized crime in Russia after 1991 can be attributed solely to the government’s feeble transition to a market economy. In this period, the government failed to make any structural changes to policies concerning transparency, accountability, and shareholders’ rights, leaving a vague line between legal and illegal (Webster, 2000, 32). The absence of transparency in business operations allowed organized crime to veil their illegal actions from prosecution. The lack of accountability made it so that when something was found questionable, nobody was held responsible for it. The nonexistence of shareholders’ rights produced a situation in which shareholders had their interests “watered down by shares issued without their knowledge or consent” and were “denied even the basic rights of ownership” through violence and intimidation.”
Yekaterinburg, during the 1990s, became one of the main centers of organized crime in Russia: two gangs fought fiercely for the control of the city.
One was the group known as Uralmash, because its members came from the neighborhood near the Uralmash, a heavy machinery factory.
The band was born in the late ’80s, and consolidated during the transition period of the Russian economy, taking control of several companies in the city, including the famous factory from which they were named. The profits obtained illegally were reinvested in legitimate activities, further increasing the strength of the group.
The Uralmash clashed with the city’s other criminal association, called the Central Gang. The war between these two bands was so fierce, that many of their members, on both sides, found themselves at the cemetery!
The important deaths of the Central Gang were almost all buried at Shirokorechenskoe cemetery, and their tombstones not only mention the names, but also the nicknames and the particular criminal skills, for example one reads “an expert in knife-throwing” and another “possessed deadly fist-fighting skills”. Beyond that provide a glimpse of the way of dressing typical of Russian gangsters of those years.
At the end of the 1990s, the mafia survivors had the opportunity to legitimize their economic activities, and also to found a political party.
Today, many former gang members have shopping centers, restaurants and luxury clubs, however, some of them are still engaged in criminal activities.
According to a recent estimate, about 30% of the Russian economy is still in the hands of organized crime.
While the mafia chiefs, and their relatives are almost always portrayed with expensive clothes, the young men who belonged to the violent laborers are depicted with leather jackets, wide pants and sneakers.
The Shirokorechenskoe cemetery, with its unusual tombstones, is not only the place of eternal rest by the citizens of Yekaterinburg, but tells, perhaps better than many words, a piece from Russia’s recent history!