The guy on the left in the Santa suit is responsible for up to fifty murdered sex slaves, including his own daughter.
A version of this article first appeared in the February 2008 issue of Penthouse magazine.
NIZHNY TAGIL — Last March, The eXile reported a story so shocking and so gruesome that it made every other item in the Russian crime catalog seem like a parking violation.
If you read the story, you remember it. A mass grave containing the mutilated remains of more than a dozen teenage sex slaves was unearthed in a forest outside Nizhny Tagil, an industrial city of 400,000 just east of the southern Urals. The young victims were linked to a local prostitution ring that had been kidnapping, enslaving and killing local girls for five years. Even by Russian crime standards, the story jumped out, blacker than pitch and colder than a snow-frosted corpse.
There were remarkably few follow-ups to the discovery, first reported in the Yekaterinburg edition of Komsomolskaya Pravda. While the Bittsevsky Maniac was working on his Chikatilo rerun, earning top billing in the Russian press and beyond when caught, the Sex Slaves of Nizhny Tagil were killed a second time by an uninterested and jaded media. Most Russian papers merely allotted an in-brief blurb to the mass murder. Aside from our short report, the Guardian was the only other English language outlet to mention the crime. Komsomolskaya Pravda was the only Russian daily that delved into the nitty-gritty and asked why it went unsolved for so long.
In July, we traveled east to find out exactly what happened in Nizhny Tagil. What we found was a story of mind-bending cruelty and epic police negligence, wrapped up in a searing multi-dimensional indictment of Russian society.
Nizhny Tagil is a natural backdrop for the crime, a city that lives up to and beyond its tough reputation. Tagil is known best for two things: the smoke belching ironworks that crowd its southern and eastern skylines, and the maximum-security prisons that surround it like institutional scarecrows. (Jailed former Yukos chairman Mikhail Khodorkovsky was originally sentenced to one of Tagil’s brutal zonas, but the authorities changed their minds and sent him to Siberia instead.) Mining, the city’s main industry for centuries, all but collapsed with the USSR. Like many provincial Russian cities, it has bounced back a bit in recent years, but not by much. Homeless and scabby babushkas sit crowd curbs clutching plastic bottles of bathtub vodka. Vicious street fights are common. The roads look like a war zone—potholed, cracked, decrepit and completely empty by 10 p.m. At night, an air raid siren soundtrack is the only thing that seems to be missing.
On our first night in town, we searched in vain for an hour to find a place to get a drink along the empty downtown streets. Eventually we stumbled on a small and smoky basement joint called the Caspi. We didn’t know it at the time, but the bar played a major role in the very crime we were researching. We should have guessed. The clientele was grizzled to the point of being a caricature of the provincial low-rent Russian underworld: the men were dressed in track suits and covered with blurry prison tattoos. The women were blank-eyed and poorly made-up in cheap designer knock-offs. There was one fellow with a full-body burn scar sitting alone in the corner. It was a criminal bar, the only late-night option in Russia’s most notorious prison town. Most Tagil residents have only one-degree of separation from the jails; they are either ex-cons or the children or spouses of ex-cons. Prisoners are often released with nothing—not even train fare—and so stick around the city simply because they have nowhere else to go.
“This city is full of savage, wild people. People who come here, come with caution,” a teenage girl named Marina Kuzmin told us the day we arrived. And she should know.
Dusk was falling in November, 2004, when Marina Kuzmin and her 16-year-old twin sister Irina were hurrying home from the trade school where they studied to become secretaries. Bitten by the cold, they ducked into a corner store to buy a snack and warm up. When they emerged, a young man approached them. He zeroed in on Irina.
“You’re so pretty,” he cooed. “Won’t you give me a bite of your corn dog?”
The man introduced himself as Stas. He wore a dirty black raincoat, scruffy white sneakers, and a tattered beanie. Yet he had the confidence of a player in an Armani suit. He looked directly into Irina’s eyes and complimented her long eyelashes and the sheen of her jet-black hair. She recoiled when he placed a hand on her shoulder and chided her for wearing such a light jacket in early winter. “It’s so thin, I can practically see through it,” he joked, throwing Marina a wry smile.
Stas’s large, luminous blue eyes were “a little hypnotizing,” Marina recalled years later. Within minutes of their meeting, Stas had found a topic of common interest: a new bowling alley in the center of town. Soon the three were chatting. Stas talked rapidly, asking about their age, where they studied, and where they lived. He said little about himself. The only thing the girls could get out of him was that he kept a chicken coop in the back of his house, which explained his soiled clothes. Stas said he was 19, although the wrinkles around his eyes and his weathered skin hinted at a much older man. People age quickly in Nizhny Tagil, but the Kuzmins hadn’t met many teenagers who were this slick. The sisters were intrigued, but sensed something wasn’t right. Eager to get rid of him before they reached their apartment building, Irina agreed to meet him the next day at the local movie theater.
Stas cleaned up for the date. His ratty clothes were gone, as was his pushy manner. He arrived with flowers, dressed in black, clean slacks and a tucked-in dress shirt. He tickled Irina with compliments as they strolled through a barren winter park. It was her first real date, and the attention made her swoon. Telephone calls followed, then a second date, and then longer talks on the phone. She didn’t return home from their third meeting. Her lifeless body, found by the side of a road outside a nearby city, would be returned to her family a year later.
Stas’ real name was Mark Kustovsky, a local ironworks factory hand. Kustovsky supplemented his wages by finding young girls like Irina for a local gang headed by a hulking 45-year-old thug named Eduard “Edik” Chudinov and his buddy, Igor Melizhenkov. For each girl Kustovsky handed over, he’d get anywhere from $20 to $500. “The better the merchandise,” Kustovsky later wrote in a confession, “the more I got.”
Once Kustovsky’s girls were handed over to Chudinov, they were offered a choice: Accept a life of prostitution, or join Uncle Edik for a private picnic in the woods north of Nizhny. Those who accepted were kept as prisoners in their own city, sometimes only blocks from their homes. Those who rejected the offer would take a ride with Edik or his henchmen and learn that the picnic menu was limited to rape, torture, and strangulation.
According to Chudinov’s videotaped confession, which the police encouraged Marina to watch, most of the girls were dumped in a mosquito-infested clearing adjacent to a forest swamp, about 30 miles south of Nizhny Tagil. The mass grave is just a few minutes by foot from the main road. One of its distance-marker signs which features an ominous bullet hole from a high-caliber gunshot.
Just a few miles away from the mass grave is Chudinov’s hometown, a bleak mining settlement called Lyovikha. If any place could produce a man like Edik Chudinov, it’s this rusted and isolated Soviet-built housing project that resembles a Nazi labor camp. Unemployment and isolation has spawned a culture of vodka and violence.
“There’s a lot of violence here, especially on the weekends,” said Oleg Masgalin, an unemployed 20-year-old Lyovikha resident whose scabbed-over knuckles and clean-shaven head bore the marks of a recent brawl. “I’d say at least one person gets murdered here every month. What do you expect? Most people here have never spent a day sober in their entire lives. Last month a guy got stabbed to death by another guy that wanted to take his car for a joy ride.”
Even in Lyovikha, Chudinov stood out. Six-foot-two, with a thick Neandethal eyebrow ridge and an almost comically small head atop his massive shoulders, Chudinov looked like something between Andre the Giant and Sin City’s Marv. He was born for intimidation and damage.
At 34, Chudinov left Lyovikha for the relatively bright lights of Nizhny Tagil. He left behind his wife and infant daughter, Lena, whose body would eventually be found in the mass grave. In Nizhny, Chudinov became a successful petty thug, involved in numerous shady businesses.
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