The Russian Gangster Cemetery in Yekaterinburg

The Shirokorechenskoe Cemetery, located on the southwestern outskirts of Yekaterinburg, in Russia, is the final resting place of many famous locals including folk artists, scientists, and heroes of World War 2. Their graves are adorned with unusual funerary sculptures, including reliefs, gem-embedded headstones and laser engravings of the deceased on granite.

In one section of the cemetery, among the pines, you’ll find some of the most elaborate tombstones. Huge granite headstones with large-than-life photo-realistic carvings depicting hardened men in expensive suits and leather jackets, with gold chains and tattoos, holding a cigarette or keys to a Mercedes in their hands. Often the cars themselves would be engraved in the background, sometimes accompanied by their girlfriends. These extravagant tombs belong to gangsters who died violent deaths during the gangland wars of the turbulent 90s.

Following the break up of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, and the region’s rapid transition to free market economy, the entire Soviet Bloc, and Russia in particular, was thrown into anarchy, resulting in the sharp rise in organized crime. Power struggle between different Kremlin factions saw an increase in assassination, hostage-taking and other violent crimes.
James Ruth explains Russia’s troubled transition to 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 (Webster, 2000, 38).

The city of Yekaterinburg became the center of gang wars, thanks to a city-based group calling itself the Uralmash, after a district around the Uralmash heavy machinery factory. Founded in the late 1980s, the group consolidated control over several businesses in the city during the transition, including the famous Uralmash factory. The profits earned from racketeering went on to be reinvested in a number of legitimate businesses, expanding the group's reach.

During the 1990s, the Uralmash group fought vicious internal wars and also clashed with the rival Central Gang. There were so many casualties that many gang members found themselves in graves, most notably in the Shirokorechenskoe Cemetery. Their gravestones were decorated in the most extravagant fashion, bearing images of the buried dressed in the classical 1990s gangster fashion. Some of the gravestones displayed not only the names but also nicknames and their particular skills. For example, one reads “an expert in knife-throwing” and another reads “possessed deadly fist-fighting skills.”

By the end of the decade, many surviving mafia leaders had gone straight and legitimized their business, and even formed a political party. These former gang members now own shopping malls, hotels and juice bars in Yekaterinburg. However, some are still engaged in criminal activity and racketeering. According to one estimate, 30 per cent of the Russian economy is still in the hands of gangsters.

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