Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Mystery Stones a Testament to Russian Crime

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Mystery Stones a Testament to Russian Crime

Article excerpt

Something very strange is going on in Moscow.

Mysterious stones and monuments are appearing in parks, plazas, and on street corners.

But they are not the work of some new religious group. They are erected under the cover of night by men with guns. These shrines to criminality are dedicated by Moscow's powerful mafia, to honor hit men, mob bosses, and underworld battles. Their growing number is a source of uneasiness for city officials, who worry about violent consequences if they are removed. "It is a serious pain in the neck," says Natalia Potapova, deputy head of the city's Heritage Preservation Department. "We are scared to take them down," she adds. "The criminals intimidate us regularly." The offending structures are sometimes only discreet stones with no inscriptions, to avoid attracting enemies' attention. But others are wildly extravagant: Towering blocks of black granite depicting full-scale likenesses of men dressed in the double- breasted suits favored by Russia's underworld. Defenders of the monuments argue that they are a perfect fit in Moscow, where the streets are graced by plentiful memorials commemorating the equally violent regimes of the czars and the Soviets. But the capital's tough mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, likes to maintain firm control on the goings-on in his realm and has ordered henchmen to tear down the new additions, which were erected without permission from city hall. "We can't allow these things commemorating bandit wars. Otherwise we'd be living in one big cemetery," explains Mr. Luzhkov's senior urban designer, Andrei Efimov. This edict, however, has created a quandary for those on the front line, who fear for their lives. They cite, in lowered voices, cases when gangsters stormed into their offices to complain, wielding automatic weapons for effect. The nervous officials have opted for a sort of rating system, removing the memorials to underlings but leaving those of top mafia bosses untouched. "Whether we leave them or not depends on if he is a major criminal and if it would be dangerous to remove," says Ms. Potapova. She adds that the practice of erecting clandestine monuments was first noted in cemeteries, when organized crime was in the ascendant after the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991. …

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