In Russia, the open wounds of history are all too seldom treated with the balm of truth. Exhibit A: the case of a convicted killer who received a hero's funeral, and whose own murder could yet spark inter-ethnic violence.

Yury Budanov, a decorated colonel and veteran of Russia's brutal war in the southern republic of Chechnya, served eight years in prison for the 2000 murder of an 18-year-old Chechen girl, Elza Kungayeva, who he said he believed to be a sniper. The verdict angered Russian nationalists, who came to idolize Budanov. Chechens and other minorities, to put it mildly, felt less charitably inclined.

Last Friday, Budanov met his own end when an unidentified assailant gunned him down in central Moscow. Tom Washington of the Moscow News recounted the grisly deed:

CCTV caught the killer sitting three meters away from Budanov as he smoked his last cigarette, waiting to launch a well-planned attack. ... The gunman knew where the cameras were pointed and never showed his face. …He waited to shoot Budanov from a blind spot, not betraying any nerves.

The murder brought the conflicting truths about Budanov back to the surface. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, tensions have often run high between ethnic Russians and the country’s multitudinous Muslim minorities (including the Chechens), a good number of whom reside in the North Caucasus.

As Natalya Krainova of the Moscow Times reported:

Budanov's death prompted fears of nationalist rioting similar to December's event on Manezh Square, where more than 5,500 people clashed with police after the killing of football fan Yegor Sviridov by North Caucasus natives.

The radio station Ekho Moskvy ominously reported that Russian nationalists were issuing calls online for a Saturday demonstration. Authorities stepped up security in central Moscow. Yelena Milashina, of the opposition daily Novaya Gazeta, outlined a case for calm, writing that “Ethnic hatred ends not in blood vengeance, but in a bloody mess.”

Reached in Norway, Visa Kungayev, the father of the victim, did little to dispel fears of bloodshed, telling Gazeta.ru that Budanov’s murder was a “provocation,” before declaring the deceased colonel got what he deserved -- “a dog’s death for a dog.”

The weekend passed without incident, but Budanov’s funeral on Monday was hardly that of a disgraced army officer, let alone a convicted murderer.

The funeral took place at a cemetery in the Khimki district on the outskirts of Moscow. Oleg Kashin and Musa Muradov of the newspaper Kommersant reported that the crowd greeted the bus carrying Budanov's coffin

with applause. Usually they do that when burying celebrities.” Russian nationalists and servicemen numbered heavily among the approximately one thousand present, as did police officers, black-frocked Orthodox priests and scarved, tearful women bearing a veritable mountain of wreaths and flowers. An honor guard even fired salutes.

Kashin and Muradov gathered opinions from those present. A seminary teacher said she “came to ask forgiveness of Budanov for our cowardice. We hid our children from the army, we sent them away to study, but he alone went to fight for us all, and we let him be put on trial.” A functionary of the “Russian Imperial Movement” vowed that “. . . we’ll get them all, we’ll avenge them all.” Another woman: “He did so much good for people. Even soldiers he didn’t know sent him gifts in prison.”

Budanov’s imprisonment hardly entailed a regime of bread and water. The opposition blogger Yulia Latynina wrote in the Moscow Times that he

was sent to serve out his prison term in the Ulyanovsk region. This worked out quite well for him because for three years of Budanov’s sentence — from 2001 to 2004 — the region’s governor was Vladimir Shamanov, Budanov’s superior officer during the Chechen war and Budanov’s most vocal supporter when he faced murder and rape charges.

Shamanov, who was proclaimed a war criminal by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, helped turn Budanov’s jail cell into a resort. For example, witnesses claim that food from a local restaurant was delivered to Budanov.

Budanov's priest, Father Mikhail, delivered a sermon savoring more of hagiography than patriotism, according to Kashin and Muradov. In an apparent reference to a deceased hero from Russia’s past, Father Mikhail claimed that “the murdered warrior Georgi has been reborn throughout Russia. [Budanov] is a warrior of the spirit, and now more than ever is serving Russia.”

Father Mikhail proceeded to beatify his former parishioner. “We’ve acquired a new saint. [Budanov] will be praying for us all in heaven, alongside [national heroes] Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoy, and Yevgeny Rodionov” – a Russian paratrooper who, captured by rebels in 1996, refused to accept Islam in return for his life and was brutally executed.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a radical nationalist member of Russia's parliament, stirred things up further, declaring from the podium that he would “make every effort to ensure that they restore the rank of colonel and his Order of Courage to him, and name a street after him in a Russian city. Yury Budanov’s murder is a challenge thrown down to the whole Russian people.”

In the wake of the spectacle, the Moscow Times editorialized:

The irony is heavy that Budanov — who tried, convicted and executed Kungayeva in his quarters — was himself summarily tried, convicted and executed by unknown attackers in central Moscow 11 years later.

. . . But the fact remains that Budanov was charged, convicted and incarcerated for a crime that prosecutors concluded he committed. In the eyes of the law, he paid his debt to society. . .

Budanov hardly seems worthy of joining the ranks of Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Klebnikov, whose slayings are still crying out for justice. Budanov participated in the very atrocities that those two courageous journalists exposed.

But if vigilante justice is swept under the carpet for a man like Budanov, what’s to stop other killers from taking the law into their own hands with the rest of us?

Both Kungayeva and Budanov met bloody ends. But the climate of “legal nihilism” famously decried by President Dmitry Medvedev lives on, and inter-ethnic animosities smolder away, ever on the brink of eruption, threatening the very unity of the Russian state.

(Jeffrey Tayler is Moscow correspondent for World View. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of six books, including Murderers in Mausoleums -- Riding the Back Roads of Empire between Moscow and Beijing. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: taylerjeffrey@yahoo.com

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net