Grand to the end: The Russian mafia bosses buried in strange, lavish tombs

Grand to the end: The Russian mafia bosses buried in strange, lavish tombs

Extravagantly detailed murals and full-body sculptures of rumoured former gangsters can be found at a sprawling graveyard the size of 400 football fields.

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Cemetery officials insist this is the tomb of “just” a driver, though it seems unlikely such a job would pay for a marble Mercedes - which also used to feature his face behind the wheel, but faded over time (Photo: Justin Ong)

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.

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Barsegov is said to have been linked to criminal kingpins operating out of the Black Sea city of Sochi (Photo: Justin Ong)

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).

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The exterior of Barsegov's crypt, with an unnamed individual buried next to it. Local crime websites say Barsegov once wielded considerable influence in all of southern Russia, where the number of gangs grew from over 20 in the 1990s to at least 100 organised triads in the 2000s (Photo: Justin Ong)

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.

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An unnamed grave also said to belong to a former mobster. The post-Soviet Union years after 1991 were a chaotic time, with government-linked mobsters amassing wealth from the large-scale privatisation of state-owned assets - and the ensuing rise in organised crime (Photo: Justin Ong)

“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.

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An aerial drone shot of a section of the cemetery (Photo: Rostov Municipal Government Administration)

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.”

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An overhead view of plots of graves, also shot by drone (Photo: Rostov Municipal Government Administration)

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.

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Rows and rows of gravestones maintained in good condition by the local government - and paid for by taxes (Photo: Rostov Municipal Government Administration)

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.

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Also buried at this cemetery: Legendary wrestler Valentin Nikolayev, 1955 world champion and 1956 Olympic gold-medallist for the Soviet Union (Photo: Justin Ong)

“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. 

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The Stepanov brothers (Photo: Justin Ong)

“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.”

Source: CNA/jo

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