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'We’ve a war on here!'

Last month a small village in Kirov region became the unlikely location of serious interethnic violence. More than 100 people took part in a mass brawl, shots were fired and the governor of Kirov region, Nikita Belykh, was compelled to fly in by helicopter. Local correspondent Ekaterina Loushnikova, who made the 350 mile trip by more modest means, uncovers the roots of the conflict.

Stones and butterflies flew at the glass. A volley of little pebbles shot out from under the minibus wheels, which bounced along the dirt road between hills covered with pine forest. The crowns of pine trees seemed grey with clouds and, as if torn from them, a swarm of white butterflies fluttered above the dusty road. Breaking against the windows of the bus, they settled on the glass like yellow ash.

Our journey had already lasted more than six hours, and we still hadn’t reached the end of the road, yet it seemed we’d reached the end of civilisation.  The rare villages which flickered past the window had become more reminiscent of cemeteries. Skeleton houses were fronted by black cavities for windows, a ruined church had become home for birds, in overgrown fields of cultivated plants only the poisonous giant hogweed grew...  

After ten hours of travelling over ruts and potholes, the back is stiff, the legs refuse to move. One wants to sleep, eat, drink, cry, glug vodka and forget the entire world.

But vodka wasn’t for sale in Demyanovo. There’s a curfew and an alcohol ban in place, while the streets are patrolled by the police. Although, it seems, this has not reduced drunkenness. 

Telling the truth

‘Hey, journalists!’ a lurching man with a crimson face calls out to us. He is  wearing something like military uniform. ‘Come here and I’ll tell you the truth! We’ve a war on here!’ 

‘Who’s fighting whom?’

‘Russians’ – the man thumped himself on the chest with his fist – ‘against Dagestanis! 

The ‘Dagis’ are pestering the girls, beating up the lads, they even knifed one. They’ve paid off the police, the authorities, and do whatever they want! And this is our land! We were born here!’

To protect ‘their land’, the Russian inhabitants of Demyanovo had taken up stakes, cudgels, planks, bits of metal. The Dagestanis were armed with hunting rifles, sawn off shotguns and traumatic pistols [‘non-lethal’ guns firing rubber balls]. The locals undoubtedly outnumbered the incomers from the Caucasus by a hundred to twenty, but they didn’t have the firepower. 


Armed standoff between Dagestanis and locals at the Demyanovo sawmill. Photo: Nikolay Lipatnikov

Symbolically, the ‘war’ in Demyanovo started on the same day as the Great Patriotic War, June 22. This time a sawmill owned by a Dagestani entrepreneur, Nukh Abdullevich Kuratmagomedov, became the battlefield. Nukh Abdullevich’s name sounds unfamiliar to Russian ears, but he came to Demyanovo seven years ago, acquired an area of forest in the vicinity of a sawmill and set up a business. He established a new Russian family, a house and household, and invited a multitude of relatives and friends from the North Caucasus to make the northern Russian village their permanent residence. Thus a ‘Dagestani diaspora’ appeared in Demyanovo. Dagestanis own four of the nineteen sawmills, and the local bar ‘Crystal’ – a former collective farm club converted into an entertainment venue. Now only ruins remain of the club-bar, only smoke wreaths above the ashes. 

'To protect ‘their land’, the Russian inhabitants of Demyanovo had taken up stakes, cudgels, planks, bits of metal. The Dagestanis were armed with hunting rifles, sawn off shotguns and traumatic pistols. The locals outnumbered the incomers from the Caucasus by a hundred to twenty, but they didn’t have the firepower.'

The club burned down in ‘unexplained circumstances’, but even earlier here a quarrel ignited between the Dagestani proprietors and the Russian clientele. Demyanovans advance differing versions of what served as a reason for the quarrel. Some suggest they argued over a girl. Others say there wasn’t enough vodka. The proprietor refused to pour out more, saying that the bar was closed ‘for a private function’. The nephew of the venue’s proprietor was celebrating a meeting with friends and didn’t want to let in customers.

What sort of self-respecting Russian would tolerate such an insult? They beat up the nephew, and he called on his fellow nephews for help. A colonnade of vehicles moved in from the neighbouring republic of Komi; in the cars sat flushed young hotheads. Increasingly frightening rumours began to creep around the village: they said that warriors from Dagestan were coming and would stab everyone, down to the last inhabitant. Women were afraid to go out on the streets. Men gathered by the river and a crowd headed to the sawmill to sort out the situation with the men from the Caucasus. Many, evidently, drank to gain some ‘Dutch courage’. Local businessman Sergei Dolgopolov entertained the ‘Russian home guard’.

‘For a crowd of a hundred there was only one crate of vodka. Is that really drunkenness?’ a young worker, Vsevolod Bobrov, asked journalists. ‘Personally I wasn’t drinking.’

‘And why go?’ 

‘We’re just fed up of them! They come here, set up their own rules, con people. I worked at Nukh’s sawmill, and he underpaid me by two thousand rubles. One of our lads was stabbed with a knife in the café.’

‘You wanted to take revenge?’

‘Well, simply to sort it. But in any case a crowd got together because we knew that eight carloads of Dagis had arrived. We came and they began to shoot… one had a hunting rifle, another a sawn-off shotgun, and many of them had cudgels, knives, traumatic pistols. They caught me too!’

Vsevolod’s whole cheek was one enormous bruise, and there were traces of blood on his head. Traces, judging by the looks of them, left by the bullet from a traumatic pistol 

‘I heard the shot, and something flew over my head. I lost consciousness, and they dragged me to one side. A police officer covered me with a shield, they broke his shield, and beat me with cudgels!’

‘Do you consider the Dagestanis enemies?’

‘After everything that’s happened, can I really consider them my friends?!’ Vsevolod even laughs at such a suggestion. ‘There will be no peace here – let them go back to their own mountain village!’

One of the brawl participants has uploaded his own video of the fight at the sawmill, entitled ‘How Dagestanis shoot at Russians’, to the internet. It’s already been viewed more than 500,000 times.  

Does everyone have their own truth?

‘The inhabitants of Demyanovo have never seen anything but kindness from me!’ Nukh Kuratmagomedov assured journalists. Kuratmagomedov is an imposing man of about fifty, with a fierce Caucasian exterior and a passionate temperament. Several years ago there was a court case against him for fighting with a bailiff. But the case ended well, Nukh got off with a suspended sentence and continued to work peaceably in the Demyanovo sawmill. Then judge Valentina Esaulova, having imposed such a light sentence, left unexpectedly for the south with a huge sum of money. Since then the police have tried in vain to return the judge to her little motherland on suspicion of corruption and other crimes. Nukh Kuratmagomedov came to his meeting with the journalists in a foreign car that was clearly not cheap.

‘Nukh Abdullaevich, perhaps people simply envy you?’


The locals outnumbered the incomers by a factor of five, but the latter had the arms.  Photo: Nikolay Lipatnikov

‘What is there to envy? You just need to work, make an effort! How am I to blame if you drink the clock round? I didn’t steal this sawmill, you know, they sold it to me themselves! Are we not one state – Russia? Why say to me ‘go home to your motherland’?! Am I an American? A foreigner? Well okay then, let us live like foreigners, let us live independently! And then what? Here’s Chechnya, which wanted independence, and they bombed the whole of Chechnya.’

‘Is it true that your people resorted to weapons?’

'In advance of the visit of the ‘big boss’ to Demyanovo, bureaucrats had embarked on a flurry of activity, filling in potholes, straightening wonky fences, mowing the grass around the village administration and even playing rousing little songs by the popular group ‘Hands Up’ (Rukhi vverkh) through loudspeakers in the town square'

‘Yes, we fired! And what should we have done? A crowd of two hundred was marching on us. All armed with stakes, cudgels and whatnot. Many of them were drunk, shouting, swearing. How could we stop them? I phoned the chief of police! He said to me, I don’t care what’s happening to you there, I don’t know how to stop a crowd. Well then, I said, I know! And we began to shoot in the air. And then the police came running…’

Now criminal proceedings have been instituted against the Dagestanis for ‘using hunting weapons outside hunting grounds’. A few criminal cases have been initiated against Russian participants in the conflict – for hooliganism, battery, wilful damage to property, and insubordination to the authorities. Three young lads were held for 48 hours and their testimony was even checked on a lie detector. After such an examination the suspects were released after signing assurances that they would not leave the area. Eight criminal proceedings were instituted all told, including one in respect of ‘mass disorders’.

Governor Nikita Belykh flew in on a Mi-2 helicopter to bring ‘order’ to the mutinous village. In advance of the visit of the ‘big boss’ to Demyanovo, bureaucrats had embarked on a flurry of activity, filling in potholes, straightening wonky fences, mowing the grass around the village administration and even playing rousing little songs by the popular group ‘Hands Up’ (Rukhi vverkh) through loudspeakers in the town square: ‘Capture me quickly, sweep me over a hundred seas! And kiss me all over, I’m already grown up, you know!’

‘What a show, turning on the music and filling in the potholes!’ Ekaterina, a village resident, was infuriated. ‘On ordinary days the village overflows with crap and no one does anything!’

Ekaterina’s friends and neighbours concur. 

‘We only have two reasonable roads – Komsomolskaya and Borovaya – and you can’t drive along the others, you won’t make it!’

‘We freeze every winter; the temperature indoors is only just above that on the street! The children freeze in school!’

‘The ceiling is falling down in 22 Komsomolskaya Street, the floor collapsed and all round there they are swimming in sewage…’

Enter the Governor peacemaker... 

So against this backdrop the long awaited governor of Kirov region, Nikita Belykh, appeared, accompanied by a noisy delegation of bureaucrats and journalists with television cameras, lenses and microphones. As has been the case for the last few years of his appointment, the governor looks tired and anxious, like a person who has been unexpectedly woken up in the middle of the night and asked to calculate the square root of Pi. 

It seemed as if the whole of Demyanovo’s population had come out to hear the governor speak. Grandmothers in white headscarves, handsome women in flowery dresses, men with the wrinkled, weathered faces of lumberjacks. The crowd listened as one. 


Governor Nikita Belykh (second left) flew into Demyanovo by helicopter to reconcile the warring parties. He left having offered a number of sweetners to worried locals — from new train carriages to sport centres. Photo: Ekaterina Loushnikova

‘We are all citizens of the Russian Federation!’ Nikita Belykh said, ‘The first inhabitants of this land were coast-dwellers. This is the Russian north! One way or another we are all guests in this land, and we all have an interest in living harmoniously and peacefully! This is the task facing the local authorities, and the law enforcement agencies, and if they don’t get to grips with this task, they will be sacked! Those who have broken the law, no matter which ethnic group they belong to, will be punished! Do you agree?’

Applause rang out, and a discordant choir of voices answered ‘Yes!’ 

The police ushered Nukh Kuratmagomedov to the stage. Anxiety, unfortunately, gave Nukh Kuratmagomedov a strong Caucasian accent. ‘I stand proud before you! I want to know the people’s opinion! If all these people here tell me they want me to leave, I leave! Just tell me what harm those Dagestanis who live here with me have done to you!’

Cries of ‘Kochkin, Kochkin!’ emerged from the crowd, to which a balding, older man with a cross in the open neck of his white shirt clambered onto the stage. This was Alexander Kochkin, a village duma deputy from Vladimir Zhirinovksy’s far-right LDPR party. 

‘Is it difficult for you to apologise to our people? To the people here who have nurtured you? For what? For bringing in lads with guns who shot at our children! For saying that you’ll bring the village to its knees! Sweet ladies, my dears, if you are satisfied with everything today then you won’t complain that you’re afraid to go back to work. That a carload of Dagestanis curb crawls you and invites you to ‘go for a spin’! You’ve learnt to whisper, but haven’t learnt to tell the truth to someone’s face. When the truth is told, then there will be some order too!!!’ 

The crowd called out approvingly and burst into applause. The microphone was passed to an older, red-haired woman in a green jacket.  

‘Listen Nukh! I’m the mother of two sons. If you are so all-powerful in our village, please turn the clock back! The lads fight, but no one saw any guns! Why did you bring warriors here? Frightening the whole village! Can you promise me that none of our children will be killed?! Mothers stand before you!!!’

The sky above the village turned dark lilac and rain fell, which did not, however, cool tempers. The women at the platform seemed ready to literally rip apart the isolated man from the Caucasus in his pale blue shirt. 


A mass meeting was held in the village square shortly after the events. Despite the governor's visit, Demyanovo remains frozen in anticipation as to what might happen next. Photo: Ekaterina Loushnikova

‘I’m not saying that we didn’t shoot! We shot!’, Nukh cried into the microphone. ‘Because the police officers, instead of maintaining order, simply ran away! I phoned Petukhov, the prosecutor’s aide. He said ‘I don’t know what’s going on, come over to my work tomorrow at 8am! I’m told to apologise for saying that I will bring the village to its knees – but I didn’t say that! And since I didn’t say that, I won’t ask for anyone’s forgiveness!!!’

The crowd yelled ‘Leave! Leave!’ 

Governor Belykh took upon himself the role of peacemaker. ‘It’s possible that everyone has their own truth’, he said. ‘But as the governor, as the highest official in post in Kirov region, I must apologise to the inhabitants of Demyanovo for any improper actions, or inaction from the authorities. I promise that all of the guilty will be punished!’

'Nikita Belykh promised the Demyanovans to add another carriage to the train into the regional centre (trains run once every two days), to deal with the housing and utilities problems, to open a sports centre and even to buy toilet paper for the local playgroup. I was left with the impression that the best way to get the government to pay attention to your problems is to create some inter-ethnic strife.'

Nikita Belykh shook hands with both Nukh Kuratmagomedov and Duma deputy Alexander Kochkin, but he didn’t manage to get these irreconcilable opponents to shake each other’s hands. It seems both remained convinced of their own opinion.  The sodden people nevertheless didn’t want to disperse, gathering in bunches under umbrellas. The biggest bunch formed around the governor. They were discussing not only ethnic but social problems: housing and utilities problems, roads, schools, playgroups and hospitals. Nikita Belykh promised the Demyanovans to add another carriage to the train into the regional centre (trains run once every two days), to deal with the housing and utilities problems, to open a sports centre and even to buy toilet paper for the local playgroup. I was left with the impression that the best way to get the government to pay attention to your problems is to create some inter-ethnic strife. 

The next day the governor flew back to Kirov in the helicopter. But more than a hundred police, including officers of the department for combatting extremism, remained in the village. The Demyanovo residents suspected of hooliganism and the arson attack on the Crystal club were summoned to the police station where they were interrogated with particular passion. One of the lads was even hit on the head, shoved in the stomach and told that he’d be hung up by the legs if he didn’t confess to organising ‘mass disorders’. The lad didn’t confess – instead he complained to human rights defenders and the public prosecutors. 


Local police were critcised by both sides for standing by and allowing disagreements to develop into armed conflict. Photo: Ekaterina Loushnikova

It looks as if Demyanovo is now facing new criminal proceedings – on the illegal actions of the law enforcement officers. After all these dramatic events, Viktor Pogolov, the head of the Ministry of the Internal Affairs for Kirov region, and Aleksandr Kliushov, head of Podosinovsky region police, were dismissed. Andrei Tretyakov and Vladimir Rudakov, the heads of the village and regional administrations, also lost their jobs.  

Now Demyanovo is quiet and without governance. The town square is deserted, the music has fallen silent, there is no sound of voices, only the reddish village dogs doze peacefully on the stage, and the sellers of fresh meat call out for customers. Demyanovo seems frozen in expectation… as if the play isn’t yet over but the main actors have left to change their costumes and reapply their greasepaint. The audience awaits the final act, in which no one knows what will happen – will it be a tragedy, or a comedy?  Or perhaps, as is fashionable in contemporary theatre, it will be an open-ended drama?

Epilogue: history repeating?

Kondopoga

On 30 August 2006, the Karelian town of Kondopoga became the scene of a large confrontation between locals and incomers from Chechnya and Dagestan. According to the official version, one night Sergei Mozgalyov and Yury Pliev, customers at the ‘Seagull’ (Chaika) restaurant, got into a row with a waiter, Mamedov, who was an illegal immigrant from Azerbaijan.  The waiter ran away from his persecutors and told some Chechen acquaintances. Within half an hour, two carloads of Chechens arrived at the restaurant, armed with knives, clubs and bits of metal. Having missed the men who’d offended the waiter, eyewitnesses claim the arrivals began to beat up and mutilate random passers-by who happened to be on the street near the restaurant. As a result, two people died on the spot from knife wounds and nine people were admitted to hospital.  

A mass meeting was held in Kondopoga’s main square, at which residents demanded that the authorities evict all illegal immigrants within twenty four hours. Several hundred people set off for the Seagull restaurant. Demonstrators first threw stones and then, forcing their way in, set fire to the utility room. A set of military restrictions, codenamed ‘Vulcan-1’, was installed across Karelia, and a Ministry of the Interior base was set up in Kondopoga. The investigation and trial of the murderers from the Caucasus and their accomplices went on for more than three years. They were all sentenced to terms of imprisonment, from 22 to three years. 

Sagra 

On the night of 1 July 2011, a gun-battle broke out in the outskirts of a small village called Sagra in Sverdlovsk region. The battle was between locals and a group of gangsters who had moved in from Yekaterinburg. Most of the gansters belonged to the Azerbaijani diaspora. One of the attackers was killed. 23 participants in the gun-battle were accused of ‘banditry’, ‘organisation and participation in mass disorders’, ‘falsification of documents’ and ‘murder threats’. The case of the attack against Sagra will be heard in Sverdlovsk regional court on 2 August 2012.


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