ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia: He sits atop a throne, with two pearly white angels at his feet. From the plain shirt tucked over his pot-belly to the furrowed eyebrows beneath a balding pate, the appearance is avuncular, genial almost - but it is obvious this was no ordinary man.
Vladimir Barsegov’s full-bodied granite statue - and remains - are contained in the only gated and sheltered tomb as far as the naked eye can see in the sprawling Severnoye Kladbishche, or Northern Cemetery, of southern Russia’s Rostov-on-Don city.
His likeness, along with a marbled Mercedes car, intricate stone-sculpted busts, towering, hand-etched portraits of businessmen smoking cigarettes and other equally extravagant tombstones, loom over what has been said to be the resting places of fallen mafia members.
Igor Osikov, the deputy director of municipal cemeteries in Rostov, did not directly answer Channel NewsAsia when asked if Barsegov was indeed a local mobster nicknamed Kirpich (brick).
The man (1928-2000) was one of the city’s first independent businessmen, who made his name selling T-shirts and exporting them to the West, Osikov initially insisted.
Then after continued pressing, he eventually conceded, saying: “Everyone in the '90s was involved in business that wasn’t completely above board. It was a different, dodgy situation then, many people did more than one job and Barsegov is one guy who got rich in his time.
“It’s unfair, it’s not fully correct to associate these guys with the mobsters of Chicago in the '30s, or Italian mafia in the ‘60s. It’s not taking into account that Russia was a country transitioning out of the old Soviet Union ... everything that happened then was the first step to what we have now,” Osikov added.
“All those businesses, they blossomed into something that’s now supporting our hosting of the World Cup.”
“A MINI CITY” CEMETERY
These lavish tombstones, primarily located near the entrance, are not the norm, said Osikov, pointing out that most of the nearly 500,000 people buried at the Severnoye Kladbishche had opted for simple, unfussy ones.
Spanning an area of some 400 football fields and 80 km of roadways, the graveyard is the second-largest in Europe only to the Saint Petersburg South cemetery in Russia’s cultural capital.
“This place is like its own organism. It’s like a mini city,” Osikov said. “It has its own transport system of buses and taxis, to ferry the thousands of government workers employed here to carry out burials, manufacture headstones, clean the area and so on … It’s a level of complexity you don’t find in many other cemeteries.”
He added: “When it was founded in 1972 it was just a few hectares of countryside, now it’s completely full - so day to day, it’s just relatives joining their families in the same plot of grave.”
Osikov explained that in the Soviet Union families were given, for free, 7.2 square metres to be buried in - a considerably larger area than accorded by most other Western cemeteries. Add the fact that cremation continues to be an unpopular option in Russia, and it points to why the Severnoye Kladbishche has grown so quickly over the years.
The black-and-white, laser-engraved portraits on headstones is also a style adopted by southern Russians over the years. “Typically the family members or associates will choose a photo that is not of the dead when they were 80, but maybe 30 or as they would like to remember them,” he said.
“Also, people here don’t have the tradition of putting images of the Virgin Mary or Christ on their headstones, so with that black space they might as well put a picture of themselves.”
The more ornate examples don’t come cheap. Osikov said the priciest - a tomb for two brothers, with a pristine bust and column for each - was made for 7.5 million rubles, or around S$165,000.
“They were heads of a major factory and very rich, so they could afford it,” he commented.
Were they mafia, too?
Waving away the question, Osikov said: “Whether businessmen, doctors, architects, singers or criminals, everyone has a right to be buried in the ground and not left out on the streets.
"And once here, they have a right to lie in peace.”