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Live Off The Ak 47, Die By The Ak 47


Letter From Russia

LIVE OFF THE AK-47, DIE BY THE AK-47

On the evening of Oct. 9, the family of Nikolai A. Perevozchikov, a high-ranking police officer in the grimy Russian city of Izhevsk, gathered at his apartment to celebrate the 20th birthday of his son Sergei. After the party, the family retired for the night.

At about 3:30 a.m., gunmen smashed through the apartment's wooden door. Working room by room, they sprayed family members with bullets, killing Perevozchikov, his wife, Nina, his 25-year-old son Igor, and his 23-year-old daughter, Tatyana, also a police officer. Survivors included two of the children's spouses and Tatyana's 9-month-old baby boy, who had been lying beside her as she was shot in bed. Sergei saved himself by diving under the dining-room table after the gunfire woke him.

CHIEF NEMESIS. To `he 600,000 residents of Izhevsk, wiping out nearly an entire family was shocking enough. But Perevozchikov was also the region's leading specialist on organized crime. He was the nemesis of the local violent gangs that have sprouted up--as they have all over Russia--since the fall of communism. Just two days after the murders, he was to have led Operation Signal, a major police sweep to arrest gang members and confiscate weapons.

The killers' choice of weapon lent the slaughter an ironic twist. Along with pistols, they used a Kalashnikov assault rifle--Izhevsk's most famous product. Ever since the early 1950s, Izmash, the largest employer in this military production center some 1,000 km east of Moscow, has been churning out the AK series of weapons, arguably the best assault rifles ever produced.

The AK, with its distinctive banana clip, was designed in 1947 by Mikhail Kalashnikov, now 74, a revered local resident. He invented the rifle after he was wounded in combat and was convalescing in a hospital during World War II. His goal, as he told the press recently, was to provide Mother Russia with weapons at least as good as the German ones he had faced.

Since then, some 55 million AK-47s and AK-74s have been produced. The AK series has been an outstanding success. Simple, rugged, and reliable, they can fire in conditions ranging from tundra to jungle. During the Vietnam War, U.S. troops scrounged AKs from dead enemy troops because they didn't jam as often as U.S.-made M-16s. Many AKs are in use today by soldiers, guerrillas, and terrorists around the world. They fetch from $300 to $1,000 and are produced in factories in eight other countries, including Poland and China. "The Kalashnikov is not just a symbol of our city but of our country," says Viktor U. Selezov, chief engineer of the Izmash plant.

FORCED FURLOUGHS. Under the Soviets, workers at Izmash and other local state weapons factories were rewarded with high salaries and perks such as access to resorts, special food stores, day care, and summer camps for the kids. They lived cozy lives, sealed off in the Russian heartland. But all that has changed. To the people of Izhevsk, the collapse of the Soviet empire has been particularly harsh. Many have lost their jobs making guns, and many more live in fear that the weapons they made will be turned on them. The Russian military has cut requests for Kalashnikovs fourfold since the 1980s. Now, some of Izmash's 70,000 workers, many of whom already are on forced furloughs, are facing permanent layoffs.

Some other plants in the city have succeeded in shifting to civilian production. A military-electronics factory, for example, now makes VCRs. The Izhevsk Mechanical Plant, a major maker of Tokarev and Makarov pistols for the military, has shifted its production from 66% defense to 94% civilian by adding such products as food processors and milk-packaging machinery.

Izmash hasn't enjoyed such success. The plant has made cars and motorcycles for about three decades. But its Kombi and Moskvitch cars look like ungainly boxes, and those Russians who can afford a new car these days favor sleek imports. Izmash did have a winning motorcycle model, whose liquid-cooled engine made it a hit in such desert nations as Egypt and Syria. But it stopped making the bike, called the Izhevsk. The problem, company officials say, was that ordinary Russians couldn't afford them, and they didn't appeal to the arrivistes who prefer imported bikes such as high-powered Yamahas from Japan and Harleys from the U.S.

That leaves the crime wave that Perevozchikov was fighting as the most reliable source of business in town. The illegal-arms market is thriving, along with the criminals who are everywhere in Izhevsk and the rest of Russia. "The mafia," says local television reporter Vlada V. Odinsteva, "is now dividing up influence spheres in the city, and murders take place often--murders of businessmen who, in this or that way, are connected with the mafia."

In recent weeks, she says, a bank director was assassinated, two store guards were killed during a robbery, and the car of the chief of a wood-products company was shot up--although he escaped being hit. Murders in the Republic of Udmurtia, which includes Izhevsk, are up 18% from last year, to 320 since Jan. 1.

Republic police recently uncovered five underground factories where gangsters were assembling Kalashnikovs and pistols from parts smuggled out by factory workers, says Valery V. Simyonov, a deputy minister of police. The Izhevsk Mechanical Plant, which makes military pistols, isn't permitted to sell the army models directly to a Russian public that is increasingly terrified about crime. But it is responding to consumer demand by modifying the guns to shoot pellets filled with a Mace-like chemical that can immobilize an attacker. Trouble is, these gas pistols can easily be retooled to fire bullets again--work that was going on in some of the underground factories.

Izhevsk's surging illicit-weapons production also includes exports. Last month, a woman associated with a private, Russian-Cypriot joint venture allegedly arranged for air shipment of 3,000 gas-pellet pistols from Izhevsk Mechanical Plant to Cyprus. She was arrested and the air cargo seized en route when police learned the guns were bound for Chechnaya, a strife-torn Russian republic in the Caucasus, where, apparently, they were to be converted for live-ammo use.

On Oct. 13, three men in their 20s were arrested in connection with the murders of the Perevozchikov family. Two more are being sought. The authorities have said nothing about the possible motive, and while investigator Simyonov won't link the killings directly to gunrunners, he says it's obviously a distinct possibility. Nor can Perevozchikov's association with Operation Signal be dismissed as a motive.

As for the people of Izhevsk, they stoically bore the heightened police presence resulting from the sweep, although in today's Russia they could have protested the searches as violations of their civil liberties. At one checkpoint on the edge of town, for example, traffic cops in flak jackets, along with tough-looking special police forces in camouflage uniforms, rousted motorists and searched car trunks and seats. One young traffic policeman carrying a Kalashnikov said they didn't need a special crackdown to find weapons: Five Kalashnikovs had been found in car trunks during routine checks at that spot over the past several months.

LAST RESPECTS. On Oct. 11, city residents turned out for the open-casket funeral of the four members of the Perevozchikov family. A crowd of about 30,000, many in tears, waited in line to pay their last respects. They filed past dozens of floral displays and a military band into the hallway of a modern building where the coffins were lined up in a row. Behind each was a large black-and-white photo of the slain family member.

Outside, there was time to ponder the meaning of the murders. A 22-year-old woman sobbed, saying that she had been friendly with Igor Perevozchikov, a former classmate. "His father was a very big man, a very great man," she says.

For others, the murders show what Russia has lost as it lurches toward an uncertain future. "When we had communism," says Nikolai M. Malyshev, 46, who works at the Izmash plant, "there was no such crime here. There was order here. Under our old system...the people were better, cleaner. The people were more decent and honest. Now everybody has freedom and does what he wants, and there is no morality."

Of course, the communists were hardly exemplars of morality. The regime killed millions of Russians. But crime in Russia today is increasingly violent, uncontrolled, and capricious. Fighting it cost Nikolai Perevozchikov and most of his family their lives. And unless Russia succeeds in containing it, crime could spell the end of the nation's fragile progress toward democracy.PETER GALUSZKA


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