Last September, the rock group Leningrad released a controversial song about the much debated Khimki Forest. The music video featured a violent medley of famous cartoon characters fighting a grand battle royale.
The recent skirmish in the town of Sagra was far more serious and deadly than Leningrad’s comic parody, but it too has inspired a both clownish and disconcerting contest among the familiar faces of Russian politics. What started as a small clash that killed one man has ballooned into a scandal that has activists and politicians scrambling to capitalize on issues that many central authorities refuse to address.
To prepare the reader for this story’s convolution, it’s useful to know the main characters in advance:
The Local Level
- Sagra’s ethnic Russian inhabitants, who frightened off an invading horde of
- 50-60 ethnic Azeris, based in Ekaterinburg, with criminal ties to
- Sergei ‘the Gypsy’ Krasnoperov, likely a drug dealing scumbag who disrupted the law-obiding serenity of Sagra, by moving there.
The Regional Level
- Evgeny Roizman and his group “A City Without Narcotics”
- Mikhail V’iugin of URA.ru news
The National Level
- Aleksandr Torshin
- Vladimir Zhirinovsky
- Aleksei Navalny
- Sverdlovsk’s KPRF (regional) committee, speaking on behalf of the party as a whole
- The Federal Investigative Committee (aka the ‘SK’)
- United Russia
Popular backlash to the Sagra incident, not unlike the Kushchevskaia and Manezh tragedies last year, reveals a dangerous vacuum in Russian politics. Lacking coherent answers to questions about ‘nationality,’ social decay, and corruption (indeed, in many cases, refusing to even discuss these problems in any specific context), United Russia and its men throughout the government hasten their own growing irrelevance by ceding the debate to nationalists bent on arming Russians to the teeth and liberals set on declaring a state of anarchy.
SO WHAT HAPPENED?
Roughly two weeks ago, there was a pitched battle in a village called Sagra, located about twenty miles outside the city of Ekaterinburg. The police tell one story, but the locals’ own version of events goes something like this: several of the town’s ethnic Russians were burglarized by associates of Sergei Krasnoperov, known around town as ‘Sergei the Gypsy.’ In late June, two locals, Zubarev and Gorodilov, visited Krasnoperov’s house on the edge of Sagra, where they accused his day laborers of stealing from them. Some people got smacked around, and the Russians left, hoping the issue had been resolved.
Krasnoperov did not wait long to respond. He and some of his scarier-looking friends visited Zubarev’s house the next day, telling his son at knifepoint to convey to Sagra’s Russians that ‘nobody messes with The Gypsy.’ When Zubarev learned about the incident, he confronted Krasnoperov and demanded an explanation. This time, Krasnoperov challenged Zubarev to a fight, who accepted on the condition that the brawl would be fair and honorable, occurring the following day. The showdown was scheduled for 4pm on July 1st, but Krasnoperov’s people never showed up.
At 11pm, however, word spread from the town’s outskirts that a caravan of 10-15 cars filled with “blacks” was en route to Sagra from Ekaterinburg. “They’re coming to kill you,” the callers warned. Not long thereafter, a motley crew of nine ethnic Russian men assembled at the town’s entrance. Armed with pitchforks, three hunting rifles (one unregistered), and just four bullets, this “Spartan” army (as blogger and activist Alexei Navalny called them) succeeded in repelling Krasnoperov’s men before they could enter Sagra.
The police arrived at the scene just as Krasnoperov’s men finished their retreat — a delay that would make contentious the exact chronology of when Sagra residents actually phoned law enforcement about the unfolding violence. The nonlocal assailants all escaped, except for unlucky Faig Musaev, who died in the crossfire. Musaev, an ethnic Azeri and illegal immigrant from Georgia, was the only casualty. In a move that has aroused the angry suspicion of Russians nationwide, the police’s investigation focused initially (perhaps solely) on the Caucasian murder victim. Zubarev and Gorodilov claim to have been interrogated by detectives who threatened that, only with an official confession, could the state protect them from a likely blood feud. Masaev’s uncle, they said, was the infamous ‘vor v zakone’ mobster ‘Zaura.’ He would be coming for revenge, the police warned.
While the Russians were questioned, investigators reportedly waited seven days before sweeping the crime scene for bullet shells and discarded weapons. Sagra locals claim to have conducted their own search during this time, turning up dozens of casings and abandoned cell phones (which they turned over to police).
Seeing the writing on the wall, Sagra’s residents turned to outsiders for help. The local police were intent on keeping the issue quiet. Zubarev and his group were being written off as ordinary hillbillies guilty of mass brawling. They needed the nation’s attention. They needed to shift from a story about murder to a tale of invasion. To change the debate, three major talking points would emerge from Sagra, each an issue that regional and federal authorities have tried hard to downplay: ethnic conflict, illegal narcotics, and the indifference, corruption, and overall low quality of Russian cops.
AND NOW FOR A WELCOME INVASION: EVGENY ROIZMAN TO THE RESCUE
While these issues are not mutually exclusive, Sagra locals seized on the theme of drug dealing when they reached out to Evgeny Roizman, head of the Ekaterinburg-based group “A City Without Narcotics” — an organization with a happy little dolphin logo that gained nationwide infamy as the outfit of Egor Bychkov, who was convicted last year of kidnapping and imprisoning junkies in order to force them into sobriety. Roizman’s group is notorious for employing heavy-handed methods in its anti-drug efforts, including beating and occasionally murdering addicts and dealers. Thanks to the devastating effects of drug use in Russia, ‘A City Without Narcotics’ has gained a noteworthy popular following. Indeed, the judge at Bychov’s trial confessed at sentencing that — though his actions were undoubtedly criminal — the anti-narcotics campaign was a noble pursuit led by well-intentioned people. Even some families and friends of the addicts Bychkov abducted and locked in his basement ultimately lobbied on his behalf, thankful for his attempt to help. Most recently, in November last year, an appeals court reduced his sentence from 3.5 to 2.5 years
Since entering the fray, Roizman has emphatically supported Sagra’s locals, conducting mass interviews throughout the town, searching the crime scene (while police dawdled) for the Caucasians’ discarded weapons, and leading a media campaign to defend Zubarev and company from being dismissed and forgotten by either the police or the country. Roizman has tried to make the war on drugs the underlying focus of the Sagra incident, but he’s also openly embraced the ethnic nature of the conflict. In a recent interview with Ekho Moskvy, he insisted that — despite the presence of some Dagestanis and even a Slav — Azeri men were the main culprits, and even called on a local Azeri diaspora leader to issue a formal apology to the town’s residents. (He made no such request of Dagestani or Russian cultural figures.)
Neither has his language shied from allusions to ‘repelling the foreign invaders.’ Roizman hasn’t just praised the locals’ heroism — he’s celebrated their bravery as a defining Russian trait. Consider what he said in his radio interview, when asked how so small a group of Russians could have defeated “more than fifty” Azeris:
[The Russians succeeded] because the attackers didn’t expect such resistance. They came to silence the countryside. They thought themselves kings free to do anything. Chances are, if they arrived in such a mood, it’s because they’ve gotten away with such things before. [But] when the [Russians'] shots rang out, and when they saw that the locals would fight to the death, they abandoned two of their cars, fell back, and [tried] to outflank. [...] There were only a few [Sagra locals], but they were ready to fight to the death. These weren’t alcoholics or bumpkins. These were honorable Russian blokes, hard workers — all of them have jobs, each has a family, each goes about his own business, and no one was drunk. These were absolutely regular guys.
This week, Roizman unveiled a t-shirt campaign designed to spread awareness about the case. The garments read “Sagra 2011″ on the back and, on the front, curiously show the WWII image of Sevastopol’s last defender (pictured above). ‘A City Without Narcotics’ has already produced an online advertisement featuring an attractive young lady changing into one of these shirts, as a rap song plays with the following lyric: “It seems we can’t live peacefully in this country, and sadly it’s nearly come to war.” To maximize the product’s appeal, there’s even a moment in the video where the model turns from the camera to remove her old shirt, revealing a pink brassiere. Roizman promoted the commercial by telling his readers, “Now this is our way: helping Sagra with a lady’s chest!”
Vladimir Markin of the Federal Investigative Committee has rejected Roizman’s interpretation of what caused the Sagra conflict. It wasn’t drug dealing, or ethnic tensions, or even police incompetence — the SK is blaming “competition in the logging industry” between Krasnoperov and the town’s other locals.
While it appears to be true that Krasnoperov’s day laborers (who are reportedly homeless men) were officially hired to tend to the garden and “chop wood,” Komsomol’skaia Pravda reports that the nearest sawmill is almost nine miles outside town, where the businesses and businessmen involved there have nothing to do with Sagra. KP also quotes an anonymous source, who claims that police discovered stacks of five-thousand-ruble banknotes when they searched Krasnoperov’s house. Markin’s statement clearly shocked Roizman. He repeated four times in his Ekho interview that Sagra has no sawmill, and claimed to have seen the remains of used syringes scattered about Sagra’s outskirts, near Krasnoperov’s house. When asked to verify that he’d seen them with his own eyes, Roizman answered, “Of course. I not only saw the syringes, I know the situation.”
In a side story, Mikhail V’iugin of URA.ru news also visited Sagra, following Roizman around for many of his interviews. On July 7th, URA.ru posted V’iugin’s article with the title “War in Sagra: Russians Take Up Pitchforks and Arms.” (The word “war” is a reference to a quote from Zubarev, who told V’iugin that, during the shootout, he felt like he was at war.) On July 8th, URA.ru published an editorial, claiming (on the word of an unnamed source in the regional government) that the authorities were planning to close down the site, for having used the word “war” and characterized the Sagra conflict as an ethnic clash. A July 12th report by Komsomol’skaia Pravda, however, rejects this claim. An official from the Federal Communications Supervision Agency told KP that it merely demanded the removal of a single reader’s obscene comment from a different Sagra-themed URA.ru article, also posted July 7th. After some brief confusion about the legal timeframe, URA.ru fulfilled the request, and the government says it has no other current charges against the news site.
BLOOD IN THE WATER: NATIONAL FIGURES TRY TO CASH IN ON SAGRA
The situation has become a national issue, with federal authorities like Acting Federation Council Chairman Aleksandr Torshin and LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky speaking out in strong support of Sagra’s locals. Zhirinovsky blamed police corruption and the dark forces of the Caucasus, saying, “In a multinational state, only a tsar or a Soviet KGB can uphold order.” In his typically clownish style, Zhirinovsky went on to say that it was more complicated but still possible to live under the law in a democracy. “We can and we must!” he cheered. The gang responsible for the shootout, he recommended, should be “rounded up and shot.”
Torshin, on the other hand, rejected the nationality question (wisely avoiding an issue that the Kremlin is eager to suppress in the Sagra context). He did, however, propose that the incident makes it necessary to add to the Russian Constitution an explicit right to bear arms. Readers of AGT might remember that Russia’s gun rights movement is tied to nationalist sentiments. (Alexei Navalny’s infamous YouTube video advocating gun ownership specifically encourages citizens to use firearms in self-defense against Muslim-looking criminals.) Torshin’s idea comes on the heels of an Anti-European Court Initiative that also displeased the Kremlin. His recent burst of extremist energy is apparently a response to the likelihood that his days as Chairman are numbered. Rumor has it that Petersburg’s current governor, Valentina Matvienko, will soon take his job. Now’s the time for Torshin to boost his brand and establish himself as a ‘serious patriot.’
Anxious to stay competitive with LDPR, the Communist Party’s Sverdlovsk regional committee also issued a statement in support of Sagra’s ethnic Russians. In a public declaration, KPRF announced:
The Russian people in modern-day Russia needs to be protected. We must acknowledge this. Today, the Communists raise the ‘Russian question.’ The Russian question is a question about the survival of the state, which constitutes the people and, therefore, Russia itself. As a party of internationalists, KPRF has the moral right to speak out in defense of the Russian people.
Aleksei Makarkin, Vice President of the Center for Political Technologies, offers a highly compelling analysis of the political maneuvers reverberating in Sagra’s aftermath (and an explanation for the absence of ‘straight talk’ from United Russia):
Just as during last year’s Kaliningrad conflict, the EdRosy have proved superfluous. They understand that it’s safer for their personal careers to keep quiet than make a mistake that could damage their political futures. In [today's] circumstances, society demands people who are capable of decisive actions in pursuit of noble aims, even if it’s not always strictly legal.
United Russia’s inaction is the result of a growing number of off-limits political topics, specifically the endemic problems of post-Soviet Russia that were supposed to have been cured by Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Ethnic tension, the influence of a still-lawless North Caucasus, drugs crime, and police corruption and ineptitude — these are the issues high-ranking Russian officials are afraid to discuss in earnest. Their silence opens the debate to lower-placed political actors who are willing to resort to extremism in the pursuit of popularity and results.
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE? SOME (VERY) GENERAL THOUGHTS
In part, this is perhaps a welcome development in the evolution of Russian politics. One consequence of increased pluralism is an inevitably greater frequency of radical (often very bad) ideas. But the Party of Power’s growing stagnation is also opening a vacuum in Russia’s cultural debate, meaning populists and hardliners could come to have more influence on real policy simply by virtue of having dared to open their mouths.
Whatever truly happened that July night in Sagra, Russian politics promises to get much nastier (a perhaps a good deal more racist) in an environment where the authorities hold their tongues, moderation is mute, and the fringe deafens all.