Kushchevskaya: crime and punishment in a Russian village

The story of scores being settled with a brutal mass murder in southern Russia has hit the Russian national press. It reveals much about the links between organised crime and power in the country today and gives the lie to the propaganda machine’s claims of increasing happiness and stability.

On 5 November a horrific crime was committed in the village of Kushchevskaya in Krasnodar Territory.  A farmer, Server Ametov, was killed in his own house. A further 11 people – his family, which includes three children, and several visitors – died with him. Not long afterwards the police arrested Sergei Tsapok, accusing him of having organized the murders, and several other people of carrying them out. The investigation is ongoing but the evidence is incontrovertible and it is quite clear that it will be proved that they did indeed commit the crime. This is a criminal case. Unfortunately, it also says quite a lot about present-day Russian politics. However, it is a long story so let's start from the beginning.

The Kuschevskaya killings and the subsequent investigation tell a gruesome truth about contemporary Russia.

Krasnodar Territory is a vast region in southern Russia. It includes the city of Sochi, which is due to host the winter Olympics in 2014.  The territory's economy has always been based on agriculture. Under the Soviet regime agricultural production was driven mainly by sovkhozes, large state enterprises, many of which were involved both in the farming and processing aspect of production. Following the fall of the Soviet regime these enterprises were privatized. As elsewhere in Russia, the privatization was accompanied by fierce, often bloody battles between aspiring owners. It is therefore not surprising that the most successful among them resorted to keeping their own little armies.

The mother of Sergei Tsapok, the man who organized the murders, is one of the wealthiest landowners in Krasnodar Territory. Altogether, the family owns around 30,000 hectares of land. Tsapok himself heads an organization called «Centurion-Plus private security firm». Most of the small armies, established primarily to protect the property of large entrepreneurs, are formally set up as private security firms. Naturally, their activities are quite often outside the law. The line between these private armies and organized crime is fairly thin.

The Kuschevskaya killings took place in Krasnodar Territory in the South of Russia

The 1990s were a rather stormy period in the history of Krasnodar Territory. For most of the decade power was in the hands of governors, appointed by then President Boris Yeltsin. They opposed the left-wing and nationalist forces led by Nikolai Kondratenko, who won the gubernatorial election in 1996. The power struggle in Krasnodar Territory was particularly brutal at that point, and the interests of the emerging landowner class played an understandably significant part in this. The success or failure of individual entrepreneurs in the privatization of state property ultimately depended on what side they were on. The Tsapok family was evidently on the right side.

After coming to power, Kondratenko quickly did away with the remaining opposition in the region, richly rewarding his supporters, not only in the form of property but also of power. Very soon the largest local landowner in a particular locality also became the most powerful local political player. The problem was that this did not put an end to the old rivalries even among the landowners most loyal to Kondratenko, who continued to rely on their private armies. The Krasnodar Territory authorities preferred not to interfere in these conflicts, leaving it up to the players to sort out who had more power and who was forced to leave.

"Tsapok and his associates probably face jail. However, I am concerned that they will not be punished for the murder but for the fact that the murder has been publicized, damaging the authorities' reputation"

The situation remained the same in the early years of Vladimir Putin's rule. Kondratenko was forced to leave office as a result of his left-wing sympathies and cooperation with the Communist Party. Even after Aleksandr Tkachev succeeded him in 2000, the power structures in the territory remained unchanged.  Under Tkachev the conflicts among landowning elites that had dragged on since the 1990s were resolved. Just as in the rest of Russia under Putin, power was definitely consolidated.

The price of consolidation proved to be rather tangible in the village of Kushchevskaya, particularly for the Tsapok family. This was because their claim to rule the village came to be challenged by another group, led by Server Ametov, the man who has now been murdered. This group consisted predominantly of Tatars, who constitute a significant ethnic minority in Krasnodar Territory. In 2002 a hitman killed Sergei Tsapok's older brother Nikolai, also known as «The Madman».  Following his brother’s death, Sergei took charge of his group.  Although apparently things were quite difficult at first, he was successful. The Tatar group was marginalized and gave up their fight for power, which was now firmly in the hands of the Tsapok family. 

By the mid-2000s order was restored to the village of Kushchevskaya. Tsapok's private army was no longer deployed against competitors, but rather to collect dues from other landowners and farmers and sometimes to grab land from them. This land would be added to the family’s holdings. The Krasnodar Territory authorities preferred to turn a blind eye, and in the village no other authority apart from Tsapok existed. His henchmen behaved with complete impunity and took increasing advantage of this situation. Criminal proceedings involving Tsapok’s people were reportedly initiated and subsequently closed, in 220 cases of murder, rape, robbery, assault and grievous bodily harm.

However, Tsapok's power was by no means merely informal. A few years ago he was elected deputy in the local government, the village soviet, and he took active part in its work. Last spring, Tsapok again stood in local elections, this time losing to one of his associates who has now also been charged in the mass murder. A third candidate in the election was Tsapok's direct subordinate at Centurion-Plus.  This kind of fictitious «election», where all the candidates represent the same dominant grouping, is typical of present-day Russia. Incidentally, it would be unfair to say that as a deputy Tsapok was not concerned about his fellow villagers. For example, he invested his own money in the construction of a municipal road and supported sports teams.

He became a respectable man, even defending a Candidate of Science dissertation, a degree equivalent to a PhD.  In his dissertation on the “Socio-cultural features of the way of life and values of contemporary village dwellers” Tsapok argues, among other things, that the subversive influence of the West is having a negative impact on the peasants, contributing to an increase in crime. Although such arguments are typical for “scholarly” texts produced by present-day Russian bureaucrats, coming from the leader of a criminal group they sound particularly amusing.

"One of the favourite rhetorical ploys of Russia's propaganda machine, which played a central role in the 2007 election campaign, is to contrast the crime rampant under Yeltsin with the stability that followed under Putin and his successor.  Cases such as the murders in Kushchevskaya reveal the true nature of this stability"

Tsapok was thus firmly established. Alas, complete impunity and a sense of absolute omnipotence have played him a cruel joke. Server Ametov and further 11 people were killed on the anniversary of Nikolai Tsapok's death. Had Ametov been the only victim of this vendetta, the news of the crime would probably have never reached us. However, the mass scale and particularly brutal manner of the killing attracted the attention of the national press. Suddenly the Kushchevskaya criminal group was noticed not just by the entire country but also by the Krasnodar Territory authorities, on whose watch Tsapok rose to be absolute ruler of the village.  

Now Tsapok and his associates probably face jail. However, I am concerned that they will not be punished for the murder but for the fact that the murder has been publicized, damaging the authorities' reputation. In a public statement Tkachev explicitly called Tsapok a “traitor”. As is well known, a traitor's guilt consists in betraying a key secret. And the secret of Russian politics is that crime is linked to power. Everyone understands this, but any direct confirmation of this fact hits a raw nerve.

One of the favourite rhetorical ploys of Russia's propaganda machine, which played a central role in the 2007 election campaign, is to contrast the crime rampant under Yeltsin with the stability that followed under Putin and his successor.  Cases such as the murders in Kushchevskaya reveal the true nature of this stability. Yes, the war has ended. One group of criminals has defeated another.  Their prize was power and they have no intention of giving it up.  Are the people happy, as the Putin propaganda machine is fond of repeating? I guess you would have to ask the beaten, robbed and raped people of Kushchevskaya about that.  Although some of them will no doubt consider the road built with Tsapok's money more important. And they will be prepared to continue to suffer. 

About the author

Grigorii Golosov is Professor of Political Science, Project Director, Center for Democracy and Human Rights Helix, St. Petersburg