A huge fight broke out in Hovanskoe Cemetery in Moscow this past Saturday in the middle of the day. More than 500 people took part; the fight left at least 3 dead and over 30 injured, many with gunshot wounds. Today, the fight is being described by Russian media as a battle, or even a slaughter. The proximate cause appears to have been a gangland struggle over running the largest cemetery in Moscow—a cemetery which also happens to be the final resting place for many of Russia’s criminal elites.
At noon on May 14, a group of armed men from the Northern Caucasus region—allegedly Chechens and Ingushetians—came to Hovanskoe Cemetery trying to force the local workers, Central Asian immigrants from former Soviet republics, to pay their regular protection fee. The attackers split into three groups and started to beat those who could not get away in time. Shots rang out. This lasted for about 20 minutes before the workers managed to call for help from their friends, regroup, and chase off the attackers, armed only with batons and shovels.
The police arrived in time to see the attackers fleeing the cemetery, with the workers in hot pursuit. By 2PM, the cemetery was cordoned off by police and the freshly-minted National Guard units (the new security forces which directly answer to Vladimir Putin). Novaya Gazeta reported that ten days prior the attack, the Central Asian workers had started to receive threats from the North Caucasians about paying their protection fees, and had reported them to the police. The police sent several squads to the cemetery, but by Saturday these were called off.
About 200 people were detained by the police after the battle, with many of those arrested testifying that they were among those called by the workers to help repel the attack. The workers seemed to know the attack was coming, Novaya Gazeta said, citing sources in the Federal Investigative Committee. The attack was a secret only to the police, and it represents a massive failure by the security services, the paper said.
The Investigative Committee’s spokesman, Vladimir Markin, wrote dismissively on Twitter that this was not an ethnic fight, but merely gangland interests squabbling over the spoils of a criminal business.
There are at least four more conclusions that can be drawn from the event.
First: The shrinking Russian economy will certainly lead to further squabbles like these over the remaining businesses in Russia, be they criminal or legal. In the legal realm, a bigger battle is now taking place over Domodedovo airport in Moscow, the second largest in Russia. Russian authorities arrested its owner, Dmitry Kamenshchik, in connection with an investigation into the 2011 terrorist attack on the airport that left 34 people dead. He was charged with failing to provide adequate security measures. The moves are designed to force the businessman to sell the airport. Failing that, they will probably just try to take it away from him by other means. This operation is being conducted with the help of both the Federal Investigative Committee and Moscow courts. As I noted in a previous essay in these pages, there’s a Russian saying that perfectly encapsulates what’s going on: “Why is it impossible to share everything with everyone? Because there are too many of everyone and there is too little of everything.”
Second: The wild Russian 90s, replete with murders, racketeering, and criminal-fueled chaos, are back. Putin has long boasted that he alone was able to help Russia get over this tumultuous period, and that he alone could guarantee stability for an unlimited amount of time.
Third: Chechens have become a major racketeering force in Moscow.
And fourth: The police and other Russian law enforcement agencies are helpless in situations like these—partly because some of them are busy with stealing businesses from people like Dmitry Kamenshchik, and partly because of their own institutional fecklessness. As various Russian liberal commentators dryly noted in the aftermath of the of the cemetery battle, the best way for the cemetery workers to have gotten the police and the National Guard to show up would have been to file a request with authorities asking for permission to protest.