In the courtyard of Steam Baths Number Four, on Astashkina Street in Odessa, there are two marble plaques with bunches of flowers laid on the ground beneath them.
The first is engraved with the image of a man in his mid-forties, sporting cropped hair and looking sleek in a suit over a T-shirt; the second has on it a poem written by his closest friends after he, Viktor Kulivar 'Karabas', was felled on this spot by 19 bullets from an unknown assassin's semi-automatic: 'The sacred clay holds the remains/Of Viktor Pavlovich, our dear Karabas'.
Karabas was gunned down in 1997. He and his mob had taken over the port city of Odessa as law and order disintegrated in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse. One might call his reign a comprehensive protection racket. But, looked at in another way, Karabas became the only reliable source of authority and social discipline. He arbitrated the city's commercial disputes (10 per cent of net profits was his price); he kept the drug peddlers to one area of Odessa, and prevented the horrific people-smuggling in the harbour district from infecting the rest of the town. Using a bare minimum of thuggery, he kept the peace. Karabas seldom carried a gun. Everyone looked up to him, and levels of violence stayed lower in Odessa than in other Russian and Ukrainian cities. His murderers were probably Chechens hired to break Odessa's grip on the local oil industry, a grip coveted by Ukraine's then president, Leonid Kuchma, who 'during his ten years in power . . . presided over the total criminalisation of the Ukrainian government and civil service'.
LRB 3 July 2008 | PDF Download