SAGRA, Russia – When Sergei the Gypsy wanted to show who was boss in this tiny settlement on the edge of the Ural Mountains, he gathered a posse of armed men and drove down a narrow road through the night, illuminating the forest with his headlights.
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“They are coming to kill us,” one of the villagers shouted, and Viktor Gorodilov, who was in his bathhouse, threw on some clothes and joined a small group of men with shotguns, pitchforks, chains and knives to guard the road. “We just had three guns, including me,” said Mr. Gorodilov, 56. “But they didn’t expect any resistance, and we had them in our hands.”
His son Andrei threw a pine cone and shouted, “Grenade!” Women hiding behind trees screamed curses and abuse.
One of the raiders was killed, and the convoy fled, shooting to cover its retreat. “It was like ‘The Magnificent Seven’!” the younger Mr. Gorodilov said, recalling a movie in which a small band holds off an armed attack.
The encounter a month ago was the culmination of a feud between villagers in this hamlet of just 130 people and an interloper – real name: Sergei Lebedev – who they believed had taken up residence here to operate a base for the drug trade.
Since then, Sagra has become a catchword for a spate of violence around the country in which people have banded together to defend themselves in the absence of police protection. “What’s going on in this country is that the government isn’t protecting anyone,” Mr. Gorodilov said.
For nearly five minutes, by her count, a resident named Tatyana Gordeyeva tried to persuade a police dispatcher on the telephone to connect her to a station. When help finally came, she said, the battle had been over for two hours.
“The police are corrupt or lazy or politicized, and it’s the same all across the country,”
said Konstantin M. Kiseyov, academic secretary of the Institute of Philosophy and Law in Yekaterinburg, which is 25 miles from the village. “So people must protect themselves. They can’t count on the government or its structures. That is why the country is turning into one big Sagra.”
Trust in the police is so low that only 40 percent of victims report their crimes, according to recent studies, whether they involve robbery or car theft or pickpocketing or more serious offenses, said Leonid Kosals, a professor of economics at the National Research University of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
In December, the symbol of local lawlessness was a village called Kushchevskaya, where a family of 12 was slaughtered by a gang that had ties to the police.
In a commentary on the political Web site Politcom. ru, Aleksei Makarkin, vice president of the Center for Political Technologies, compared the two episodes, saying government officials had “proved superfluous.”
“They understand that it’s safer for their personal careers to keep quiet than make a mistake that could damage their political futures,” he wrote. “Society demands people who are capable of decisive actions in pursuit of noble aims, even if it’s not always strictly legal.”
Among them are civic groups like an agency in Yekaterinburg called City Without Drugs that makes citizens’ arrests of drug dealers and locks addicts inside its own treatment centers, combating a drug epidemic that had been left to fester through police inertia and corruption.
Acknowledging the problems with the police, President Dmitri A. Medvedev recently ordered a revamp of the force – based on tests of