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."
The house in Lyovikha where Chudinov grew up, and where his mother still lives
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.
"Last month a guy got stabbed to death by another guy that wanted to take his car for a joy ride." — Oleg Masgalin, 20, unemployed Lyovikha resident
In 2002, he struck out on his own. Chudinov borrowed some money and bought a couple of large apartments in downtown Nizhny Tagil, a rundown area of nondescript Soviet housing blocs and small generic shops. According to Kustovsky's confession and reports from Rinat Nizamov, the journalist who broke the story for Russia's Komsomolskaya Pravda, Chudinov told his buddies to find girls; he'd take care of the rest. Mark Kustovsky, aka Stas, was his best man. Chudinov hired muscle to guard to keep them in constant fear and guard them around the clock. When a girl lost interest in her job, he would personally apply the necessary pressure. If she continued to resist, she ended up in the forest.
For five years this went on. But more than 1,000 people disappear from Nizhny every year, many of them teenage girls, and Chudinov’s victims blended in with the rest. Familiar statistics like the rest. Where they went, nobody knew.
* * * *
A week after Irina Kuzmin's disappearance, Kustovsky put in one last call to the Kuzmin household. Still calling himself Stas, he asked for Irina as if he did not know she was missing. But Marina suspected him immediately. After all, he had taken her sister on a date to the bowling alley the night she didn't return home. But Kustovsky was so confident, he even agreed to accompany Marina and her older sister Olga to the police station. Kustovsky showed up in a good mood in his blue Adidas tracksuit. The cops didn't know him, but they made small talk and joked with the alleged kidnapper.
"It was obvious to everyone in the room that something wasn't right," Marina says. "He admitted that he had liked to my sister about his name and age." And yet the cops still didn't consider Kustovsky a suspect, Marina says. He was allowed to waltz out the door, while the police scolded the sisters for being paranoid. She'll turn up sooner or later, they said.
Like other families of the missing, the Kuzmin sisters found themselves in a bureaucratic nightmare of incompetence and indifference. Marina says Irina's case not only changed investigators seven times in six months--one retired, one took an extended vacation, another became ill--but in July, the police lost Irina's casework. The folder containing the statements and contact information on Kustovsky simply vanished. Everything had to be collected again. Of course, there was very little in the folder other than what the Kuzmin sisters had supplied.