. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Siberian Casebook Of Crime

LENINSK-KUZNETSKY, Western Siberia -- War is raging across Russia as mafiosi and mayors alike fight to the death over post-communist spoils. Here, in a hardscrabble mining town in the middle of Siberia's dying coal fields, most people agree on the best way to stay alive and out of jail: Be insignificant. Aspire to nothing.

Gennady Konyakhin, the mayor of Leninsk-Kuznetsky, ignored this rule. And it looks as if he's about to pay for it.

A convicted small-time criminal, Konyakhin is being investigated for big-time crimes: suspicion of ordering three contract killings, of illegally buying the city's main market -- which he named after himself -- and of ordering city agencies to buy gasoline from his stations and award contracts to his construction company.

He was arrested Wednesday in Moscow after he disappeared from Leninsk-Kuznetsky, where authorities sought to detain him on suspicion of misappropriating funds, Interfax reported.

It was unclear what he was doing in Moscow, but the agency quoted sources as saying he might have been trying to "flee justice" at home.

Konyakhin has been unable to risk stepping outside without a bodyguard in his city of 140,000 people. But neither can anyone else with money. A mine director was murdered this year; last year, the deputy director of the mining conglomerate was shot down; so was the deputy chief of the tax police, along with numerous businessmen. The city had 103 murders in 1995, 72 in 1996 and 43 so far this year.

"We're not Chicago or New York,'' Colonel Sergei Yuriyev, head of police criminal investigations in Leninsk-Kuznetsky, said soothingly. "Our town is remarkable only for being unremarkable. The 1990s in Russia are the same as the 1930s in the United States."

So Konyakhin said he was surprised when the Kremlin reached out from 2,000 miles away in Moscow just over a week ago and pointed a finger at him. President Boris Yeltsin was initiating a vigorous national offensive against widespread corruption, and he said he was beginning with Gennady Konyakhin.

"You could as easily call me a cosmonaut as a killer," Konyakhin said in an interview last week in his office, which is decorated in chrome, black lacquer and elegant gray. "If I was such a bad person, how could I become mayor?''

The voters say he's no worse than anyone else in public office. They say previous corrupt officials are stirring things up because they have been pushed aside.

"Konyakhin fired the people he used to bribe," said Maria Alexyeyeva, a 50-year-old retired compositor waiting for a bus on the shabby main street. "That's why they're so angry now."

Konyakhin, 38, was elected mayor in April after a campaign in which he assured voters he was so rich he didn't have to steal. He made no effort to hide his criminal past.

"People know I was tried," he said. "They voted for me anyway. For that I thank them."

Konyakhin, a former boxer, was found guilty in 1980 of robbing two young soldiers, in 1985 of stealing a car and in 1990 of abuse of trust for buying cars and reselling them at prices exceeding the official price set by the government. He served only short or suspended sentences, such light punishment at the time that most people assumed he must have bribed someone.

"I violated the law when I was a young guy," the mayor said, adding that some of his crimes would be legal now, especially the car sales.

From cars, Konyakhin went into vodka, selling it in street kiosks. He built his business into an empire of 14 mini-marts, two guarded parking lots, four gasoline stations, a supermarket, the main city market and a sports complex. His current worth is a secret, especially from tax collectors, but it was once estimated at more than half a million dollars -- a fortune in a town where coal miners earn $100 a month.

Konyakhin's latest troubles began a few weeks ago when a mysterious man walked into the lobby of Izvestia, a national newspaper in Moscow, and handed a reporter a videotape. It was a story so juicy no paper could resist publishing it.

"If you are watching this tape," a face on the tape said from the steam of a sauna, "it means I am dead."

The man -- identified by Yuriyev, the police colonel, as a petty drug addict named Nikolai Shmakov -- went on to accuse Konyakhin of hiring him to kill three people.

Konyakhin said the tape was manufactured by crooks angry at his efforts to clean up the city.

"I replaced about 20 officials," he said. "I destroyed the middlemen who were stealing from the city.''

Konyakhin destroyed the middlemen by putting the city into the business of buying and selling coal, the region's only industry. Profits from buying and selling coal fuels the high murder rate, said Yuriyev.

"It's all we have to steal," he said. The mayor acknowledges he urged the city to buy gas from his stations, which he put into his wife's name after he became mayor.

He appeared puzzled that any of this could be wrong. After all, he asked, wasn't the city saving money with his gas?

"I'm not guilty of anything,'' he said. "This publicity has made me one of the most popular men in Russia. Now not only all of Russia knows me, but so do those abroad. Maybe this will bring rich foreign investors to this small town."