MOSCOW — Something very strange is going on in Moscow.
Mysterious stones and monuments are appearing in parks, plazas, and on street corners.
But they are not the work of some new religious group. They are erected under the cover of night by men with guns.
These shrines to criminality are dedicated by Moscow's powerful mafia, to honor hit men, mob bosses, and underworld battles. Their growing number is a source of uneasiness for city officials, who worry about violent consequences if they are removed.
"It is a serious pain in the neck," says Natalia Potapova, deputy head of the city's Heritage Preservation Department.
"We are scared to take them down," she adds. "The criminals intimidate us regularly."
The offending structures are sometimes only discreet stones with no inscriptions, to avoid attracting enemies' attention.
But others are wildly extravagant: Towering blocks of black granite depicting full-scale likenesses of men dressed in the double-breasted suits favored by Russia's underworld.
Defenders of the monuments argue that they are a perfect fit in Moscow, where the streets are graced by plentiful memorials commemorating the equally violent regimes of the czars and the Soviets.
But the capital's tough mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, likes to maintain firm control on the goings-on in his realm and has ordered henchmen to tear down the new additions, which were erected without permission from city hall.
"We can't allow these things commemorating bandit wars. Otherwise we'd be living in one big cemetery," explains Mr. Luzhkov's senior urban designer, Andrei Efimov.
This edict, however, has created a quandary for those on the front line, who fear for their lives. They cite, in lowered voices, cases when gangsters stormed into their offices to complain, wielding automatic weapons for effect.
The nervous officials have opted for a sort of rating system, removing the memorials to underlings but leaving those of top mafia bosses untouched.
"Whether we leave them or not depends on if he is a major criminal and if it would be dangerous to remove," says Ms. Potapova.
She adds that the practice of erecting clandestine monuments was first noted in cemeteries, when organized crime was in the ascendant after the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991.
Having infiltrated traditional burial grounds, the criminals began to move boldly into the city streets, encroaching ever closer to the center itself.
All told, authorities estimate that two dozen such monuments of assorted shapes and sizes are scattered in corners of Moscow, where they defiantly remind residents of the mob's power.
This is an irritant not only from the point of view of civic order, but also for financial reasons. At a time when the capital, like the rest of Russia, is undergoing a severe financial slump, squeezing out the extra kopecks to tear down some stones is an unneeded burden.
STILL, many of those who raise the criminal memorials say they initially tried to do so legally but were refused permission.
One such monument used to lie on Leninsky Prospect, a major thoroughfare in Moscow. All that is left now is a small bouquet, whose flowers peep out of the snow outside No. 92, a rundown apartment block like so many in the Russian capital.
It was here that friends and relatives of Nikolai Shaverski had erected a 6-foot black granite slab in his honor after he and another youth were gunned down on the spot in 1993, allegedly by a Georgian criminal gang.
His mother, Raisa Shaverskaya, says they repeatedly sought permission to put up the monument but city authorities refused on the grounds that the killing stemmed from a mafia fight.
City authorities on various occasions tore down the monument, but Mr. Shaverski's supporters would just put up another. In January, however, they wearily accepted that they had lost the battle.
"At this point it doesn't matter to me. I'll just leave flowers on the spot where the monument was," says a tearful Ms. Shaverskaya.
The city's tenacity in pursuing the matter puzzled some neighbors, such as Valentina Petrovna, who walks her dog by the spot every day. Although some residents had complained, many like herself were indifferent. "If the parents and friends put it here, so be it. It doesn't matter to me," she says.