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Robbers target Russia's graves

Ivanovo - Even the dead are not safe from Russia's deep economic crisis. Grave robbers, driven by hunger and desperate poverty, are on the rampage in the textile city of Ivanovo, north-east of Moscow.

Unlike the body-snatchers of bygone days when pioneering medical researchers sought human remains for dissection, they come at night in search of more readily saleable graveyard booty, from plastic flowers and metal plaques to tombstones.

The scourge has reached a new intensity as relatives stream to local cemeteries on annual spring pilgrimages to clean up graves for yesterday's Russian Orthodox Easter and next week's May Day holidays.

"There have always been a few idiots and drunks who take things," says Margarita Noskova, the head of services at Ivanovo's Balino cemetery. "But now they're stealing anything and everything, wreaths, aluminium plaques, even whole tombstones."

She blamed the bomzhi, or homeless drunks, but said professional operators were also involved in the traffic that saw the metal sold to scrap dealers, the granite recycled into new headstones and artificial flowers put back on sale in Ivanovo's street markets.

The police refuse to take the problem seriously, Noskova said, even though a plastic wreath can cost the equivalent of pounds 19 - a month's income for many of the town's cotton mill workers.

"It's awful. They just steal and steal. And what can we do about it?" shrugged Valentina Guseyeva, a pensioner laying plastic flowers at the grave of her sister. But she warned with typical Russian philosophy: "God will punish them."