The Kushchevskaya Massacre & The Putin Era

Murdered by organized crime. (Photo from LifeNews)

Roughly a month ago, twelve people — including four children — were massacred in Kushchevskaya, a town of about thirty thousand people in the Krasnodar region. The simple facts have been widely reported (in both the Russian and English press): a farmer, Serever Ametov, and his family had some friends over for a Den’ narodnogo edinstva holiday celebration. Eleven members of a local gang came out from hiding and attacked the group, killing everyone in sight. They even killed a nine-month-old baby, along with the child’s mother. The murderers then tried to burn down the house where everyone was killed, hoping to destroy any evidence of their crime. Apparently they didn’t stick around long enough to make sure the fire took. It didn’t. The bodies were discovered: strangled, stabbed, and shot. The incident has shocked the nation and sparked a massive debate about the state of organized crime in Russia.

Of all the things being said about the Kushchevskaya tragedy, the most intriguing analysis — indeed the most damning — is that the massacre debunks the foundations of the Putin era legacy. In mainstream Russian political discourse, the previous decade enjoys a reputation for stability — not so much an intrinsic calm, but a relative predictability in contrast to the Yeltsin era, which Vladimir Putin infamously termed “the troubled 90s” in 2007. The rise of Putin and the siloviki was meant to rein in the truly out-of-control criminals. After (re)establishing the ‘Power Vertical’ and the indisputability of state hegemony, businesses were expected to move out from the black market, allowing the government to tax openly and employees to collect salaries ‘in the white.’ The de facto one-party state (dominated by United Russia) suffers from endemic corruption, but it seemed a sufferable price to pay for a degree of normalcy.

Then came the news from Kushchevskaya, followed by details about a local criminal gang that, it turns out, has been terrorizing the city since the collapse of communism. Reports about hundreds of rapes, murders, and various forms of intimidation soon surfaced. It seems that the gang has been implicated in such crimes for years, but on-the-take prosecutors and judges always found ways to delay and ultimately dismiss criminal repercussions.

Sergei Tsapok

LifeNews, Russia’s unrivaled leader in scoops and access to crime scenes, has released several reports about how Kushchevskaya gang members evaded criminal prosecution in the past. The group’s current leader is Sergei Tsapok, who today sits in pretrial detention after being arrested on November 17th for masterminding the November 4th massacre. For the last two years, police have failed three times to even charge Tsapok with assaulting a ГУБД officer in July 2009. LifeNews claims that Tsapok ultimately paid Leonid Korzhinek, a state prosecutor, between two and three million rubles to make the case go away. (Korzhinek was one of the few members of regional law enforcement to be fired in the massacre’s aftermath. He shares this honor with local УВД boss Viktor Burnosov, who was dismissed the same day that Tsapok was arrested, and Sergei Kucheruk, the region ГУВД boss who was unlucky enough to be singled out in President Medvedev’s annual Poslanie to the Federal Assembly as the one guy he was actually canning.)

There are other examples of Tsapok’s control over local authorities. In August 2006, a Kushchevskaya judge awarded Sergei Tsapok five hundred thousand rubles in moral damages after a discussant on state television linked Nikolai Tsapok, Sergei’s deceased brother, to organized crime. The judge, Sergei Shapovalov, is a childhood friend of the Tsapok family. He is currently expecting a lifetime appointment to the Krasnodar court system.

Similar stories in other towns about mass terror, mass graves, and long histories of criminal enterprise have also popped up. Small business owners in Gus’-Khrustal’nyi published an open letter to Vladimir Putin with a list of thirty crimes that local authorities have refused to investigate. Itogi reminded readers about Levikha, a small town outside Nizhnii Tagil, where fifteen young women were found buried together in 2007. Some of them had been missing for as long as five years — but police refused to even file a missing persons report, presumably because they knew from the beginning that the women were being abducted, imprisoned, and murdered by their meal ticket: the local mafia.

The situation has inspired more than one analogy. Dmitri Treshchanin at Svobodnaia Pressa compares Russian organized crime to Latin America, highlighting that such conflicts can produce civil wars. The Latin America connection was also picked up by criminologist Vladimir Ovchinskii in an Ekho Moskvy appearance on November 22nd, when he claimed that the Russian murder rate, officially pegged around 17,000 per year, is perhaps actually as high as 200,000!

"To whom does power belong in this country?"

The other prominent analogy is feudalism — and not just because of the barbaric nature of the Kushchevskaya massacre. Grigory Sanin’s piece in Itogi (mentioned above) applies the medieval narrative: “Tsapok’s boys gave the villagers somewhere to work, let them get settled, establish farms, [and] protected their land from outsiders.” But, in exchange, Tsapok acquired “vassal privileges” to steal, rape, and maim. “All this would have been fine in the Middle Ages,” Sanin concludes, “but in the era of modernization it’s just savagery and nonsense.” Writing for Moskovskii Komsomolets, Stanislav Belkovskii authored a truly inflammatory article on November 26th that ends with the line, “Tsapok is the collapse of the [Putin] regime.” Belkovskii’s piece features a photoshopped image of Tsapok in royal, tsarist attire (pictured right), the argument being that his Kushchevskaya fiefdom so boldly rejects the myth of a federal power vertical that mafia wars and anarchy are not far off.

A November 25th editorial in Vedomosti, titled “the Troubled 00s,” best captures the panic of the current public debate. The piece begins with a quote from Krasnodar Governor Aleksandr Tkachev, who is now infamous for having (idiotically, though perhaps honestly) said of the Kushchevskaya massacre and the Tsapok gang, “Unfortunately, on some level, such gangs exist in every region, in every city.” Vedomosti warns that the stability of the Putin era is largely a myth: “The possibilities for criminal enterprise — despite a fat decade, stability, and the vertical of power — are still quite large.” Even journalist Maksim Kononenko, a regular critic of the liberal democratic opposition, called Kushchevskaya a “serious eye-opener” in a blog post in which he argued that Russia’s historical “unpredictability” continues in the modern-day (echoing the medieval tropes used by reporters like Sanin and Belkovskii).

Governor Tkachev has not been sacked. (Vladimir Zhirinovsky, ever the eager populist, tried and failed to bring about his dismissal at the end of November.) About a week ago, however, Tkachev was called to the Kremlin by President Medvedev, where he was given two weeks to bring the Kushchevskaya matter to justice. (The ‘or else’ consequences for the Krasnodar governor remain unclear.)

Within a few days of being arrested, Sergei Tsapok was hospitalized after a nervous breakdown. Apparently he suffers from a psychotic disorder and requires daily medication — which he either did not or could not take while in pretrial detention. Days later, Tsapok ratted out his entire gang, giving police details about dozens of unsolved cases, implicating his underlings across the board. He even told interrogators who killed Boris Moskvich in 2002, handing Rashid Nurgaliev and Alesandr Bastrykin something to smile about in a month when both men have faced increased criticism. “Investigators aren’t the least bit surprised,” LifeNews reported, “Sergei Tsapok spent his whole life hiding behind the back of his brother and under the skirt of his mother.” Incidentally, his mother, Nadezhda Tsapok, was charged with embezzlement earlier today. She is being prosecuted for illegally appropriating between fifteen and twenty million rubles in state subsidies to the family business, Arteks-Agro. The business is widely reported to be the legal front for the family mafia.

One small epilogue to add to the feudalism analogy: it turns out that Serever Ametov, the primary target of the massacre, was more than a random victim of organized crime. Most journalists mourning the medieval, ‘vassal-state’ environment in Kushchevskaya assume that Ametov fell prey to some kind of racketeering campaign — punishment for the stubborn subject who refused to pay his debts and tributes. This may have still applied to Mr. Ametov, but LifeNews reports that Tsapok could have had another reason to so brutally attack the farmer and his family: Ametov is believed to have banded together with other local businessmen in 2002 to resist the Tsapok clan. That year, Nikolai Tsapok, Sergei’s brother and then-leader of the gang, was gunned down outside a store. Did Ametov have a hand in Nikolai’s assassination? If so, why would Sergei have waited so long to take revenge?

These are, of course, just a few small questions to consider as Russians ruminate about the troubledness of current times and the costs and benefits of their social contract with the Power Vertical.


    • That would be a difficult sell, as these gangs were living out their prime during the Putin years. I think you’ll see a united front from the Kremlin on this issue. Putin’s response to the Gus’-Khrustal’nyi open letter was swift (sent Bastrykin, fired a bunch of people, etc.). Medvedev has been spitting fire at governors and police officials, as well.

      If the Kremlin tries to repeat its expansion of powers after the Beslan tragedy, they might find it more difficult to justify. Terrorists are easier to fight than corruption.

  1. I think it’s a strong argument in favour of stronger media… The problem is, that story had to be investigated. There are too many journalists who run op-ed columns on hot topics. We need MORE investigative journalists… And we need them in regions…

  2. Every now and then there is a scandal which raises the question of the regime’s stability, and proves that the system is much more vulnerable than it seems (or wants to seem) to be.
    Still the legitimacy of Putin’s Russia seems cemented. No matter what happened in the last few years, Putin’s popularity index remained incredibly high and hardly ever decreased significantly. I wonder how this is possible.

  3. Every murder in America is a sign of regime instability?
    What I find suspect are not gang activities in some parts of Russia or Brazil but that members of a certain tribe historically hostile to Russia based in a country that is Russia’s enemy are tirelessly spreading anti-Russian propaganda, misinformation and disinformation as if they had nothing better to do or as if the Evil Empire itself had no other business except as to stick its long and crooked nose into foreign holes no matter how remote or irrelevant or smelly. I don’t see Russian bloggers tirelessly tapping away on keyboards describing, in Russian, and lamenting over assorted evils of life in Ivory Coast or United States or Uruguay but I see a robust cottage industry almost without exception employing same tribesmen who with religious zeal and fanatic dedication pour effluent all over Russia and Russian people while catering to the propaganda goals and tastes of their certainly not Russian speaking employers and paymasters.

    • **I don’t see Russian bloggers tirelessly tapping away on keyboards describing, in Russian, and lamenting over assorted evils of life in Ivory Coast or United States**

      Perhaps they should, and, more often with the US, they actually do. The problem here is not Russian bloggers, however, but Russian authorities and their failure to deliver on the promise (“a social contract”) they made to the Russian people. Indeed Kushchevskaya is a sign of the profound failure of the whole Putin’s regime: the moral failure of the in-and-out corrupt system of “law enforcement” (whose law do they enforce? mafia’s?), the organizational failure of the “power vertical” to show itself in localities, the political failure of the “strong president and the powerful state” mythology. Above all, the failure of the people to protect themselves from this monstrosity, the neo-feudal Russian postcommunism with its pretense at global leadership. And yes, Sir, the Russian “tribesmen” must be the first to kick these power-greedy leeches out. And if they can get even a minimal help from websites like this, so much for the better.

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