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From an award-winning investigative journalist comes an astonishing exposé of Russian organized crime, its growing power in the United States, and its terrifying implications for the rest of the world.
In the past decade, from Brighton Beach to Moscow, Toronto to Hong Kong, the Russian mob has become the world’s fastest-growing criminal superpower. Trafficking in prostitutes, heroin, and missiles, the Mafiya poses an enormous threat to global stability and safety.
The black-market corruption of the Brezhnev era proved the perfect breeding ground for organized crime. Beginning in the 1970s, Soviet émigrés – including a large number of felons and murderers the USSR was happy to get rid of – began arriving in the United States and a number of them quickly established themselves as a major criminal force in New York, Las Vegas, and elsewhere.
But it was the breakup of the Soviet Union that made the Russian mob what it is today. In a weakened, impoverished Russia, it quickly became the dominant power. And it has now spread to every corner of the United States, infiltrating its banks and brokerage firms – and American law enforcement is just waking up to this enormous problem.
No journalist in the world knows more about the Russian mob in America than Robert Friedman. At great risk to himself, he has made connections with a number of top criminals who have gone on record about their activities for the first time. The result of his discoveries is a revelation: the Red Mafiya is everywhere. The implications – for law enforcement, the economy, foreign policy, for the American people themselves – are staggering.
I would like to thank the following organizations for their support:
- The Dick Goldensohn Fund
- The Fund for Investigative Journalism
- The Committee to Protect Journalists
I would also like to thank Michael Caruso, Tim Moss, Jim Rosenthal, and my agents Kris Dahl at International Creative Management and Eric Simonoff at Janklow & Nesbit Associates.
|The Superpower of Crime
The Hit Man
The Little Don
Brighton Beach Goodfellas
Operation Red Daisy
Invasion of America
Colonization and Conquest
The Money Plane
The World’s Most Dangerous Gangster
God Bless America
Ihad just returned from a vacation in June 1998 when I found out how dangerous it is to investigate the Russian mob. Mike McCall, a top agent on the FBI’s Russian Organized Crime Squad in Manhattan, called me with chilling news. “I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings,” he said gently, “but the FBI has reliable information that a major Russian organized crime figure has taken out a contract on your life.”
Belgian journalist Alain Lallemand, an expert on Russian organized crime who has suffered through hair-raising attempts on his life, once told me that the Russian mob would leave journalists alone as long they didn’t come between the mobsters and their money. In a series of revelatory articles about the growing threat of the Russian mob in such publications as New York, Details, and Vanity Fair, I had apparently crossed this dangerous line.
Stunned, I finally managed to ask McCall what I was supposed to do in response. “We are working on this just as hard as we can,” he answered, “but right now we can’t preclude the possibility of something happening to you, okay?” But how could I protect myself – and my wife? McCall bluntly replied that it wasn’t the FBI’s responsibility to offer that kind of advice. After some pleading, he at last offered a tip: “If you have the opportunity to lie low,” he said simply, “take it.”
At the time, I was getting ready to fly to Miami to interview a Russian crime lord nicknamed Tarzan, a man who had sold Russian military helicopters to Colombian drug barons and was in the process of brokering a deal to sell them a submarine, complete with a retired Russian captain and a crew of seventeen, when he was arrested by the Drug Enforcement Agency. McCall told me to forget about the trip to Miami, which has the second largest concentration of Russian mobsters in the United States; a hit man could easily trace me to my South Beach hotel. For that matter, he said, I should also forget about doing any more interviews in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn – ground zero for the Russian mob in America. In fact, he advised, I should consider forgetting doing any more reporting at all on the subject.
The next day, a magazine that had just published one of my exposés of the Russian criminals generously supplied me with some getaway money and a bulletproof vest. Before I could flee town, however, I noticed a thickly bearded, muscular Russian loitering around my apartment building whom I was certain I had once seen in the company of a notorious Russian don nicknamed Fat Felix. I didn’t waste any more time. I quickly collected my wife and drove up to a rented hideaway in Vermont.
One week spent pacing the floors of our retreat left me restless and upset, and I resolved not to be intimidated into silence or to spend another day underground. Despite the risk, I returned to my home. As far as the FBI was concerned, however, I was on my own; they refused to tell me anything further about the death order, feebly explaining that the bureau couldn’t jeopardize its “sources and methods.” One sympathetic DEA agent suggested that I buy myself a .357 revolver; as he explained, although it flares when it’s fired and there is quite a jolt, it’s more reliable than an automatic, which can jam if not constantly cleaned.
I later learned (though not through the FBI) that the author of the anonymous death threat against me was Semion Mogilevich, the Budapest-based leader of the Red Mafiya, the most brilliant and savage Russian mob organization in the world. It was after I had written a long exposé of his criminal career in The Village Voice that he put out a contract on my life, a threat that was picked up during a telephone intercept by the Central Intelligence Agency, according to the New York Times. A European law enforcement official told the Times that the contract was for $100,000. At least one key witness in the murder plot was killed before he could testify against Mogilevich, the Sunday Times of London reported.
I first began exploring the shadowy world of Russian organized crime in the late 1980s. I had spent much of my career documenting the primordial struggle between Palestinians and Jews over a tiny, bloodstained strip of land on the Mediterranean that both sides passionately love and call home. On occasion, I’d tackle such diverse stories as AIDS, prostitution, and political corruption in India. While working on an Italian Mafia story, I was introduced by a Genovese organized crime family source in New York to several of his Russian criminal colleagues, a meeting that opened a door for me into this little known, nearly impenetrable ethnic underworld. I found them to be devilishly crooked wunderkinder, who in a few years’ time, I suspected, could establish a New World Criminal Order. Over the following years, I ventured into the Russians’ gaudy strip clubs in Miami Beach; paid surprise visits to their well-kept suburban homes in Denver; interviewed hit men and godfathers in an array of federal lockups; and traveled halfway around the world trying to make sense of their tangled criminal webs, which have ensnared everyone from titans of finance and the heads of government to entire state security services.
In the sheltered, seaside community of Brighton Beach, I had become a polite, but persistent pest. One Brighton Beach mobster tried to bribe me; another tied me up in a frivolous, though costly, libel suit; other Russian wiseguys tried to scare me off with angry, abusive invective. Several gangsters simply accused me of being biased against Russian émigrés – a ridiculous accusation, as all four of my grandparents were Jews who fled czarist Russia for America to escape religious persecution.
Ironically, the first wave of Russian mobsters used the same excuse to gain entry to America. During the détente days of the early 1970s, when Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had agreed to allow the limited emigration of Soviet Jews, thousands of hard-core criminals, many of them released from Soviet Gulags by the KGB, took advantage of their nominal Jewish status to swarm into the United States. The majority settled in Brighton Beach, where they quickly resumed their cruel criminal vocation.
The Russian mob may act like Cossacks, but I never seriously considered running away an option. Yet then I received a second, particularly violent death threat: “Friedman! You are a dirty fucking American prostitute and liar! I WILL FUCK YOU! And make you suck my Russian DICK!” The obscenity-laced note was placed inside a Hallmark Valentine Day’s card that teased: “It was easy finding a Valentine for someone like you.” The author of the threat hadn’t bothered to hide his identity. It was signed Vyacheslav Kirillovich Ivankov.
The FBI has described Ivankov as the most powerful Russian mobster in the United States. Before coming to the U.S. in 1992, he spent many years in the Gulag for a number of gruesome crimes, including torturing his extortion victims, and he had personally ordered the killing of so many journalists, police, and civilians in Russia that a ruling council of mob bosses banished him to America. He arrived with several hundred no-neck thugs led by a former KGB colonel. Using his considerable intelligence and muscle, Ivankov quickly seized control of the Russian Jewish mob, which by then had grown from a neighborhood extortion racket in Brighton Beach to a brutal, innovative, multibillion-dollar-a-year criminal enterprise.
Despite his conviction in 1996 of extorting two Russian Wall Street investors, and his subsequent sentencing to a prison term in a federal penitentiary until 2005, Ivankov, according to the FBI, had continued to issue commands from his upstate New York cell, ordering the execution of his enemies and underworld rivals. When he mailed me the handwritten death threat, the fifty-nine-year-old gangster was so brazen that he included his cell block unit and prison ID number.
This time, I phoned the FBI. McCall rushed to my cramped New York apartment, where he gingerly picked up the caustic message with rubber gloves, placing it into a clear plastic folder. The bureau later considered making Ivankov’s mordant valentine part of a multicount federal indictment against the godfather. “Our idea is to put him away for life,” an FBI agent told me, explaining that, the longer Ivankov was in jail, the less sway he’d have over his criminal comrades. I was asked whether I’d be willing to publicly testify against the Russian. “If it makes you feel any better, I’m on his hit list, too,” admitted one top FBI official in Washington. In fact, as one of the two agents who put Ivankov in prison, so was Mike McCall. But of course, they both had badges – and guns. Still, I agreed to testify, fully aware of the fact that the witnesses who had stood up against Ivankov in the Wall Street extortion case were now living secretly in the Federal Witness Protection Program.
However perilous the situation into which I was placing myself, I was aware that in Europe and the former Soviet bloc, the dangers faced by journalists are far, far worse. “Journalists pursuing investigative stories on corruption and organized crime have found themselves at great risk,” stated a 1997 report from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, “especially in Russia and Ukraine, where beatings have become routine. These physical assaults have had the expected chilling effect on investigative journalism, frightening some reporters into self-censorship or even quitting the profession, while many have resorted to using pseudonyms.”
In all, thirteen journalists from the Russian Federation have been killed by the mob since the fall of communism, according to the committee. In one of the worst incidents of intimidation, Anna Zarkova, a forty-year-old award-winning crime reporter, had sulfuric acid hurled in her face in downtown Sofia in May 1998. From her hospital bed, now blind in one eye, the mother of two appealed to her colleagues not to be cowed into silence. “If they don’t splash acid in your face as a journalist,” she said, “tomorrow they will kill you in the street as a citizen. That’s how crime escalates in this country.”
Russian mobsters, in the United States, simply don’t play by the unwritten rules of the acceptable uses of gangland violence. Rarely has the Italian Mafia, for instance, inflicted harm on a member of the American media, prosecutors, or judges, fully aware of the retaliation that would likely result. The Russians, however, have no such prohibition. Murder, for them, is a blood sport. “We Italians will kill you,” a John Gotti associate once warned a potential snitch over a government wire. “But the Russians are crazy – they’ll kill your whole family.” Some eighty Russian mob-related murders still languish unsolved on the books in Brooklyn alone. “The Russians are ruthless and crazy,” a retired New York City cop told me. “It’s a bad combination. They’ll shoot you just to see if their gun works.”
It is no small irony that the FBI has become my guardian angel, for if not for its own sluggishness in addressing the problem, the Russian mob in the United States would never have become as powerful as it is today. Though FBI boss Louis Freeh has said that Russian criminals pose an “immense” strategic threat to America, the bureau didn’t even set up a Russian organized crime squad in New York until May 1994, long after the Russian mob in America was well entrenched. It should perhaps come as no surprise that the FBI, which likewise failed to go after La Cosa Nostra for thirty-five years, is now playing a desperate game of catch-up.
Blending financial sophistication with bone-crunching violence, the Russian mob has become the FBI’s most formidable criminal adversary, creating an international criminal colossus that has surpassed the Colombian cartels, the Japanese Yakuzas, the Chinese triads, and the Italian Mafia in wealth and weaponry. “Remember when Khrushchev banged his shoe on a table at the U.N. and said he would bury the West?” a baby-faced Russian gangster once asked me in a Brighton Beach cabaret. “He couldn’t do it then, but we will do it now!”
With activities in countries ranging from Malaysia to Great Britain, Russian mobsters now operate in more than fifty nations. They smuggle heroin from Southeast Asia, traffic in weapons all over the globe, and seem to have a special knack for large-scale extortion. The Russian mob has plundered the fabulously rich gold and diamond mines in war-torn Sierra Leone, built dazzling casinos in Costa Rica with John Gotti Jr., and, through its control of more than 80 percent of Russia’s banks, siphoned billions of dollars of Western government loans and aid, thereby exacerbating a global financial crisis that toppled Wall Street’s historic bull market in August 1998.
Tutored in the mercenary ways of a brutal totalitarian state riddled with corruption, the Russians have developed a business acumen that puts them in a class by themselves. Many of today’s foremost Russian mobsters have Ph.D.’s in mathematics, engineering, or physics, helping them to acquire an expertise in advanced encryption and computer technology. “Hell,” a senior Treasury Department official remarked, “it took them about a week to figure out how to counterfeit the $100 Super Note,” which was unveiled in 1997 with much fanfare as “tamper-proof.”
More ominously, U.S. intelligence officials worry that Russian gangsters will acquire weapons of mass destruction such as fissionable material or deadly, easily concealed pathogens such as the smallpox virus – all too readily available from poorly guarded military bases or scientific labs – and sell these deadly wares to any number of terrorist groups or renegade states.
In North America alone, there are now thirty Russian crime syndicates operating in at least seventeen U.S. cities, most notably New York, Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Denver. The Russians have already pulled off the largest jewelry heist and insurance and Medicare frauds in American history, with a net haul exceeding $1 billion. They have invaded North America’s financial markets, orchestrating complex stock scams, allegedly laundering billions of dollars through the Bank of New York, and coolly infiltrating the business and real estate worlds. The Russian mob has even penetrated the National Hockey League, where many players have either been its victims or become Mafiya facilitators, helping the mob sink its roots further into American soil. There is even fear that NHL games may be fixed. “The Russians didn’t come here to enjoy the American dream,” New York State tax agent Roger Berger says glumly. “They came here to steal it.”
Russian mobsters in the United States aren’t just Italian wiseguy wannabes. Merging with the even more powerful Mafiya groups that have flourished in post-perestroika Russia, they have something La Cosa Nostra can only dream about: their own country. Just as Meyer Lansky ran Cuba for a short time until Castro seized power in 1959, the Russian mob virtually controls their nuclear-tipped former superpower, which provides them with vast financial assets and a truly global reach. Russian President Boris Yeltsin wasn’t exaggerating when he described Russia as “the biggest Mafia state in the world” and “the superpower of crime.”
In 1993, a high-ranking Russian immigration official in Moscow told U.S. investigators that there were five million dangerous criminals in the former U.S.S.R. who would be allowed to immigrate to the West. It’s nearly impossible for the State Department to weed out these undesirables because the former states of the Eastern bloc seldom make available the would-be émigré’s criminal record.
“It’s wonderful that the Iron Curtain is gone, but it was a shield for the West,” Boris Urov, the former chief investigator of major crimes for the Russian attorney general, has declared. “Now we’ve opened the gates, and this is very dangerous for the world. America is getting Russian criminals. Nobody will have the resources to stop them. You people in the West don’t know our Mafiya yet. You will, you will!”
For nearly a year, the FBI promised to prosecute Ivankov for his death threat – or at least punish him by taking away some of his basic privileges. When they refused to act, I went to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which contacted the New York Times. On March 5, 1999, Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter Blaine Harden wrote a front-page Metro section story about the death threats. “I was a good soldier for a long time,” I told Harden, “but then I felt like a billy goat on a stake. I have been exposed too long and the people making these threats have gone unpunished too long.”
Within days after Harden called the FBI for comment, Ivankov was transferred in the middle of the night from his comfy cell at Ray Brook Correctional Institution, a medium-security federal prison near Lake Placid, New York, to the maximum-security prison at Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. The Times reported that Lewisburg would impose considerably tighter security restrictions on him because of the threat. “I want him to know I am behind this punishment,” I told the Times. “And I want him to know that he cannot threaten the American press the same way the Mafiya does in Russia.”
Robert I. Friedman has been covering the Russian mob for Details, Vanity Fair, and New York for years. He is the author of Zealots of Zion: Inside Israel’s West Bank Settlement Movement. He lives in the New York area.
The investigative stories of Robert I. Friedman (1951-2002) appeared from the early 1980s. Allegedly, he died of a tropical blood disease. But many had their doubts and believed he was poisoned. The daring Jewish journalist made headlines exposing politicians, bankers and mobsters who preyed on the powerless.
The ADL maligned him, death threats poured in, and he was badly beaten by West Bank thugs. Friedman warned the FBI of the threat posed by the first World Trade Center bombers and deliveered vital reports on the long arms of the Russian Jewish mafia, which offered $100,000 to have him killed.
FRIEDMAN, Robert I. 1950-2002
PERSONAL: Born 1950; died of heart failure caused by a rare blood disease July 2, 2002, in New York, NY; married Christine Dugas (a business journalist). Education: University of Colorado, B.A. (African and Middle Eastern studies); attended American University, Beirut; University of Wisconsin, M.A. (journalism).
CAREER: Investigative journalist. Worked on a defense plant assembly line, late 1960s. Village Voice, New York, NY, contributing editor.
AWARDS, HONORS: Alicia Patterson fellowship, 1987. An award in Friedman's name was established by the Fund for Investigative Journalism, Washington, DC.
The False Prophet: Rabbi Meir Kahane: From FBI Informant to Knesset Member, Lawrence Hill Books (Brooklyn, NY), 1990.
Zealots for Zion: Inside Israel's West Bank Settlement Movement, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 1994.
Red Mafiya: How the Russian Mob Has Invaded America, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2000.
Contributor to publications, including Village Voice, Nation, New York Review of Books, New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Details, New York Times, and New York.
SIDELIGHTS: Robert I. Friedman was an investigative journalist who is perhaps best known for delving into the workings of the Russian mob in the United States, which resulted in threats to his life. His own contacts spanned the globe, and he worked in relative anonymity until 1999, when he was credited with uncovering the information that led to national headlines alleging that the Russian mob had set up a $10 billion money-laundering scheme through the Bank of New York.
Friedman grew up in Denver, Colorado, and worked on an assembly line while taking classes at the University of Colorado. He took time off to travel and audited courses at American University in Beirut, Lebanon and stayed in a red-light district where he was the only Jew living among members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). In October 1973, he volunteered to work on a kibbutz in Israel while the men fought the Yom Kippur War.
Upton Sinclair's 1906 The Jungle was Friedman's inspiration. Freedman once said, "I wanted to be a writer and bring down the bastions of power that caused common people so much suffering. That's what I thought in eleventh grade. I guess I never grew up. I still feel that way."
Friedman was known for his attention to detail and attribution in his controversial and volatile reporting. The New York Times allowed him to break news on the op-ed page, and in 1987, a grant allowed him to report on the radical Jewish right, whose hope it was to establish a Greater Israel on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Friedman, who was of Russian-Jewish heritage, sometimes alienated other Jews for his criticism of figures like Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish Defense League. Nation reviewer Michael Rosenthal called his biography, The False Prophet: Rabbi Meir Kahane: From FBI Informant to Knesset Member, "a devastating, thoroughly convincing account of the career … of a world-class fraud, megalomaniac, and vicious bigot who rose to prominence – and a seat in the Knesset in 1984 – by exploiting the basest fears of Jews both here and in Israel. A genius in the marketing of racial and religious hatred, Kahane demonstrates what implacable ambition unsullied by any trace of decency or morality can do for you if only you are serious."
Friedman notes that Kahane was fired from his first and only job as a rabbi and then became an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). He used a pseudonym, Michael King, and spent the 1960s infiltrating left-wing peace groups, lobbying for the Vietnam War, and reporting on various organizations, including the Black Panthers and other Black Nationalist groups in which the FBI was interested. He achieved greater public recognition when he founded the militant Jewish Defense League (JDL) in 1968.
"Capitalizing on the racial tensions of the late 1960s, the JDL purported to be ready to defend innocent Jews from the alleged anti-Semitism stemming from the increasingly militant black civil rights movement," wrote Rosenthal. "In fact, it never defended anybody from anything, except perhaps Kahane from his creditors. In providing Kahane a platform from which to spout his politics of hate and fear, it enabled him to galvanize the anxieties of thousands of Jews into pouring millions of dollars into an organization whose real mission was not their protection but the selling of Meir Kahane." Friedman notes that many of the contributors would never admit to their support.
Kahane became a hero to the Jewish right of New York and was in league with mob boss Joseph Columbo, who showed up in court and paid Kahane's bail of $25,000. In 1971, Kahane left for Israel after being indicted for manufacturing weapons, where he coined his slogan, "Every Jew a .22," as he called for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel and the Occupied Territories.
Rosenthal concluded by saying that Friedman "negotiates the miasma of Kahane's life with both admirable restraint and a compelling urgency, exposing his cynicism, his dishonesty, his untroubled racism. He examines as well the human wreckage spawned by Kahane's fanaticism – altogether, a grim and unforgiving portrait of a man who has always feasted on confrontation."
Zealots for Zion: Inside Israel's West Bank Settlement Movement followed. Tikkun reviewer Rita E. Hauser wrote that "the details and color that Friedman provides about the agenda of the messianic Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza will surely deepen the foreboding that often grips supporters of a truly democratic Israel. Above all else, Friedman documents the extent to which Israeli political figures have used the settler movement for their own purposes."
Friedman had moved in mob circles for years, including for his reportage on the Cosa Nostra, and his connections helped him infiltrate the Russian mob early in the 1990s, after the cold war had ended. Russians with criminal records had taken refuge in the United States during the 1970s when Russia, under pressure from the U.S. government, allowed Jews to emigrate. Russia took advantage of this opportunity to rid itself of thousands of jailed criminals on an unsuspecting United States.
Friedman never gave away his informants, who continually fed him information because they trusted him. In a 1993 Vanity Fair article, he wrote about Marat Balagula and others in the Russian Jewish mob that were based in Brighton Beach on the Brooklyn shore and who were loosely connected to the Italian mob. Balagula was eventually convicted of evading taxes owed the federal government from the sale millions of gallons of gasoline.
Through the 1990s, Friedman broke other stories on various operations and figures, including Semion Mogilevich – whose network is the "Red Mafiya" of the title. A Ukranian Jew who was linked to prostitution, drugs, nuclear arms trafficking, and the New York money laundering scheme, Mogilevich employed a sophisticated staff that used modern technology to extend his operations around the world. Friedman drew on interviews and data contained in classified documents to expose the various schemes, and the FBI contacted Friedman and suggested that he and his wife go into hiding when death threats were made. They did, for just a week, then returned to New York City.
Friedman's reporting on the Russian mob culminated with his book, Red Mafiya: How the Russian Mob Has Invaded America, in which he documents the corruption that has flourished since the end of the cold war, resulting in a "criminal colossus that has surpassed the Colombian cartels, the Japanese Yakuzas, the Chinese triads, and the Italian Mafia in wealth and weaponry." Friedman lists the schemes of dozens of Russian crime syndicates operating in the United States, including Medicare fraud, theft, stock scams, money laundering, and their activities in business and real estate. He writes of deals in which helicopters and a submarine were sold to Colombian drug lords and how the Russian mob is expanding into Africa and Australia.
In reviewing Red Mafiya for the New York Review of Books, Raymond Bonner wrote that Friedman's prose "sometimes makes it sound like a sequel to Pulp Fiction." Washington Post Book World's Peter H. Stone said Friedman "does a first-rate job of showing why FBI director Louis Freeh has said that the Russian mob poses an 'immense' threat."
In 1996 Friedman was on assignment in Bombay to investigate how political corruption and sexual slavery were contributing to the AIDS epidemic. Upon returning to the States, he experienced flu-like symptoms that were the first signs of a rare, incurable blood disease that eventually damaged his heart to such an extent that it not support him past the age of fifty-one. Nation contributor and friend Julian Epstein wrote: "Robbie was the real thing: a courageous reporter who, operating freelance, made headlines exposing how the thuggish and greedy, in all their guises as politicians, bankers, revolutionaries, and mobsters, were preying on the weak."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Journalism Review, January, 2000, Sherry Ricchiardi, "The Best Investigative Reporter You've Never Heard Of," p. 44.
Journal of Church and State, autumn, 1993, Louis Gordon, review of The False Prophet: Rabbi Meir Kahane: From FBI Informant to Knesset Member, p. 916.
Middle East Journal, spring, 1991, Dennis King, review of The False Prophet, p. 354.
Nation, October 29, 1990, Michael Rosenthal, review of The False Prophet, p. 494.
New Leader, December 14, 1992, Yehudah Mirsky, review of Zealots for Zion: Inside Israel's West Bank Settlement Movement, p. 13.
New York Review of Books, October 25, 1990, Arthur Hertzberg, review of The False Prophet, pp. 41-47; November 16, 2000, Raymond Bonner, review of Red Mafiya: How the Russian Mob Has Invaded America, pp. 52-55.
New York Times Book Review, May 13, 1990, Robert Leiter, review of The False Prophet, p. 18; January 10, 1993, Peter Grose, review of Zealots for Zion, p. 21.
Oral History Review, winter, 1995, Sherna Berger Gluck, review of Zealots for Zion, p. 115.
Publishers Weekly, February 9, 1990, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of The False Prophet, p. 54; October 12, 1992, review of Zealots for Zion, p. 58; May 8, 2000, review of Red Mafiya, p. 216.
Tikkun, September-October, 1990, Milton Viorst, review of The False Prophet, p. 86; March-April, 1993, Rita E. Hauser, review of Zealots for Zion, p. 65.
Times Literary Supplement, August 24, 1990, Patrick Seale, review of The False Prophet, p. 890.
Washington Post Book World, July 16, 2000, Peter H. Stone, review of Red Mafiya, p. 9.
Flak, http://www.flakmag.com (January 3, 2003), Ben Welch, review of Red Mafiya.
Salon, http://www.salon.com (May 18, 2000), Mark Schone, review of Red Mafiya.
American Journalism Review, September, 2002, p. 10.
Nation, August 5, 2002, p. 4.
Washington Post, July 9, 2002, p. B7.
Freedom Forum Web site,http://www.freedomforum.org
Robert I. Friedman, whose uncompromising investigative stories appeared in The Nation from the early 1980s onward, died July 2 in Manhattan at the age of 51. In an era of timid, corporatized journalism, Robbie was the real thing: a courageous reporter who, operating freelance, made headlines exposing how the thuggish and the greedy, in all their guises as politicians, bankers, revolutionaries and mobsters, were preying on the weak.
Robbie came to prominence reporting from the Middle East, starting with a gutsy scoop from Beirut revealing Israel’s relationship with the fascist Christian Phalange, a harbinger of its Lebanon invasion. Then came hard-edged portraits of Jewish fanatics like Moshe Levinger, leader of the militant Gush Emunim settlers, and Meir Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League. Detailing the support those fringe elements were getting from US Jews and predicting they’d drive Israel far to the right, Robbie’s reporting provoked a barrage of attacks.
The Anti-Defamation League (which he called the Jewish thought police) maligned him, death threats poured in and he was once beaten up by West Bank settlers. To Robbie the worst was being called a self-hating Jew, since it was the humanistic tradition of Judaism that inspired him, and he feared, as he said in his last Nation article (“And Darkness Covered the Land,” December 24, 2001), that Israel was dangerously close to becoming a right-wing apartheid state – something, he wrote, “Israel did not set out to be.”
Although his sympathies were with the Palestinian people, he reported on the duplicity of PLO leaders and described how Islamic extremism oppressed Palestinian women. He followed the truth, wherever it took him. Branching out, he presciently warned that the FBI was ignoring the broader threat posed by the first World Trade Center bombers and delivered cutting-edge reports on the international reach of the Russian mafia (which put a $100,000 contract on his life); it was the subject of his last book, Red Mafiya.
Robbie was proudest of his Nation story “India’s Shame” (April 8, 1996), which detailed how sexual slavery and political corruption in Bombay had created an AIDS catastrophe. Alas, while reporting it, Robbie contracted the rare blood disease that ultimately took his life.
The Fund for Investigative Journalism has established an award in his name: Box 60184, Washington, DC 20039-0184.
Robert I. Friedman (November 29, 1950 – July 2, 2002) was an American investigative journalist.
In 1993, Friedman castigated the FBI for ignoring information it had developed on the Muslim extremists behind the first bombing of the World Trade Center. The report earned him a Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Award for Best Investigative Reporting in a Weekly.
Friedman is probably best known for his writings about violence-prone Jewish fundamentalists and the book “Red Mafiya” about the Russian mob and its entry into the U.S.
His reporting has resulted Friedman receiving death threats throughout his career. At one point he was informed by the FBI that Semion Mogilevich had put a contract out on his life.
Robert I. Friedman died on July 2, 2002 at the age of 51 as the result of a rare disease he contracted while in India working on a story about human trafficking and sexual slavery.
The "Robert I. Friedman Award" is given out to investigative journalists by the board of the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
Books by Robert I. Friedman
- (1990): The False Prophet Rabbi Meir Kahane, From FBI Informant To Knesset Member.
Published by Lawrence Hill & Co., Brooklyn, NY, ISBN 1556520786
- (1992): Zealots for Zion. Inside Israels West Bank Settlement Movement.
Published by Random House, New York. ISBN 0394580532
- (2000): Red Mafiya: How the Russian Mob Has Invaded America
Published by Little, Brown and Company, Boston, New York, London ISBN 0316294748
Copyright © 2000 by Robert I. Friedman
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
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In North America alone, there are now thirty Russian crime syndicates operating in at least seventeen U.S. cities, most notably New York, Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Denver. The Russians have already pulled off the largest jewelry heist and insurance and Medicare frauds in American history, with a net haul exceeding $1 billion. They have invaded North America’s financial markets, orchestrating complex stock scams, allegedly laundering billions of dollars through the Bank of New York, and coolly infiltrating the business and real estate worlds. The Russian mob has even penetrated the National Hockey League, where many players have either been its victims or become Mafiya facilitators, helping the mob sink its roots further into American soil. There is even fear that NHL games may be fixed.
“The Russians didn’t come here to enjoy the American dream,” New York State tax agent Roger Berger says glumly. “They came here to steal it.”1
On a spring day when warm sunshine flooded the narrow, potholed streets, I took a taxi to Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), an imposing collection of tomblike cinder block towers in lower Manhattan, to interview Monya Elson – one of the most dangerous Russian mobsters the feds ever netted. I passed through several layers of security before I was shepherded by an armed guard up an elevator and deposited in a small, antiseptic cubicle with booming acoustics where lawyers meet their clients. I had a tape recorder and four hours of Memorex. At least half a dozen armed guards stood outside the door, which was closed but had an observation window.
Elson, an edgy man with a dark mien, was brought into the room, his hands and feet chained. He is considered a maximum-security risk, and for good reason: a natural-born extortionist and killing machine, Elson is perhaps the most prolific hit man in Russian mob history, making Sammy “the Bull” Gravano, with nineteen acknowledged hits, a mere piker. Elson boasts one hundred confirmed kills, a figure the authorities don’t dispute. With his dour-faced wife, Marina, Elson would allegedly go out on murderous rampages, rumbling around Brooklyn in the back of a van. After flinging open its doors, they would gleefully execute their shakedown victims, à la Bonnie and Clyde.
“It was a sex thing,” claims a Genovese goodfella who worked closely with Elson. “They got off on the withering bodies.”
Elson emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1978, claiming Jewish refugee status, and settled in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. His mission: to become the most legendary gangster of all time. “Nobody remembers the first man who walked on the moon,” Elson explains. “Everybody remembers Al Capone.”
Elson wore a drab brown prison uniform; his close-cropped hair, formerly thick and black, had thinned and turned salt-and-pepper like his mustache. His once handsomely roguish face was puffy and pale. Cyrillic letters were tattooed onto each finger, identifying him as a made man in the Russian mob.
When the last prison guard left the room, Elson, his hands unshackled, scooped me up in a bone-jarring Russian bear hug, kissing me on both cheeks. He was enormously strong. Elson granted me an interview, in part, because my maternal grandfather was from Kishinev, Elson’s hometown. “Oh, we have the same blood!” he said. “But it went in a different direction. I come from a different culture. I am a criminal. And for you this is bad: you were raised to believe in the law. What is good for you is not good for me. I am proud of what I am.”
Elson suddenly started pulling off his shirt and pants. “Look here! Look here!” he shouted excitedly, showing off his battle trophies. Pointing to a crater from a dumdum bullet near his heart, he boasted, “It’s still inside. And look at this: I was shot all over. It wasn’t a joke. The pain in my arm from a shooting goes through me like electricity on wet and humid days. It really hurts.”
Elson was most proud of a large tattoo that covered his right shoulder. It depicted an anguished-looking skeleton immersed in a vat of acid, desperately reaching up to grasp two angels hovering above. “In this world, a young man seeks a name,” said Elson, laying out his bleak criminal philosophy. “When he has found a name, he seeks money. When he has found money, he seeks power. But when he has power, he doesn’t wish to lose it.” Elson has spent his career clawing over the corpses of his enemies, trying to reach the top rung of Russian organized crime – a metaphorical place he calls the “warm spot.”
MCC hadn’t dampened Elson’s egomania. He wanted to know what every wiseguy I interviewed had to say about him.
“You spoke to somebody about me?” Elson asked, playing with an empty plastic ashtray.
“Don’t say to whom. But what did they say? Tell me description. Don’t tell me who because I’ll lose my patience.”
“They say you’re a hit man, professional, one of the best,” I replied.
“Unforgiving,” Elson added. “But fair or not? I never touched an innocent person. Or they said that I did? People say I don’t have feelings, that I don’t give a fuck. It’s not true. It’s not true. First of all, if you don’t have feelings you’d have to be a Hitler, or you’d have to be a Stalin. But when you lead the kind of criminal life where somebody wants to kill you, that somebody wants to take your warm spot. You cannot let them. I don’t kill people for fun. That’s not true…”
Elson suddenly became sullen, irritable; his mouth twisted into a tight sneer. “This place is like a mental institution,” he moaned with disgust. Prison was eating into his soul, although he denied that he was having a hard time dealing with it. “I’ve been fighting since I was eleven years old. I’m a fighter. I’m not a punk.”
1 From the Introduction
Elson was born to a Jewish family two years before Stalin’s death, on May 23, 1951. Kishinev, the five-centuries-old city on the banks of the river Dnestr, was a town without pity for Jews. A pogrom on April 3, 1903, incited by the czar’s minister of the interior Vyacheslav von Plehve, killed more than fifty Jewish residents; scores of Jewish women were raped by pillaging Cossack horsemen. The pogrom was memorialized in an epic poem by Bialik, in which he lamented the plight of the Diaspora Jew as “the senseless living and the senseless dying” in a world that would always remain hostile to them. Bialik underscored the Jewish people’s deep yearnings for an independent homeland – or a ticket to safety in the West.
From the time that he was a boy, Elson instinctively recognized that there was only one way out of the Jewish ghetto: to excel at crime. He grew up in a rough neighborhood, which grew even rougher when, the year before he died, Stalin released thousands of inmates from the Gulag into the district. These hooligans became Elson’s heroes. “We had guys who were like the kings of the neighborhood. Tough guys. They were fighters. They weren’t afraid of the police. And in every conversation they spoke about jail. How to survive the Gulag. How to be independent of the law Russia imposed on you. When you grow up and you hear only bad things about the government, and the words were coming from cruel people who had passed through the harshest system in the world – the Gulag, the Stalin regime, and World War II – this environment, of course, has some influence on you. Because every kid, as I understand it, in any country, wants to be tough, wants to be famous, wants to be strong somehow.” The songs Elson relished as a youth were not communist odes to the motherland, but rather, criminal folk songs with lyrics like: “This street gave me the nickname thief and gradually put me behind bars.”
Given the gross inequities of communism, where corruption wasn’t just widespread but the business of the state, it was almost inevitable that the Soviet Union would be plagued by an almost institutionalized culture of thievery. As Pulitzer Prize winner David Remnick, a former Washington Post correspondent in Moscow, has portrayed the situation, “It was as if the entire Soviet Union were ruled by a gigantic Mob family known as the C.P.S.U. [Communist Party of the Soviet Union].” Beneath the thin veneer of official communism lay a vast underground economy of off-the-book factories, food co-ops, and construction companies that were the basis of the burgeoning black market in everything from medicines to foodstuffs. Store and restaurant managers, directors of state enterprises, officials of local, regional, and even national party institutions, and operators of collective and state farms all trafficked in illegal business. Corruption was so pervasive in the Black Sea port of Odessa, historically a major seat of organized crime in Russia, that the first secretary of the city’s party committee was sentenced to death in the early 1970s for black-marketeering.
By the end of the Brezhnev period, the underground sector of the economy accounted for as much as 50 percent of the personal income of Soviet workers. But it was the apparatchiks and black marketeers who profited the most, living like feudal lords in ornate hilltop palaces and summer villas, relaxing in private sanatoriums, shopping in special stores filled with Japanese consumer goods, and traveling abroad – the most coveted privilege in the restrictive Soviet Union. But the black marketeers weren’t only ambitious Russians with an entrepreneurial bent; they often included nationally renowned members of the intelligentsia, sports stars, chess champions, and the cream of the art and entertainment worlds. These individuals would journey overseas under the patronage of a friendly politician, bringing back choice wares like Citroën cars, motorboats, and designer fashions for resale. Many became multimillionaires.
Unsurprisingly, the State, while officially denying the existence of crime, tolerated the criminal underworld, the thugs and extortionists who played a prime role in feeding the country’s repressed appetite for consumer goods. “Organized crime in the Soviet Union bears the stamp of the Soviet political system,” wrote Konstantin Simis, a lawyer who had worked in the Soviet Ministry of Justice, in his exposé, USSR: The Corrupt Society. “It was characteristic of the system that the ruling district elite acted in the name of the Party as racketeers and extortionists, and that the criminal underworld per se paid through the nose to the district apparat for stolen goods and services.”
Left out of this lucrative equation were most average Russians. Although the majority also learned to deal in illegal black market contraband to one degree or another – there was simply no other way to survive – the greedy nomenklatura, the elite membership of the Soviet governing system, and criminal demimonde hoarded the greater share of the nation’s already scarce resources for themselves. Victims of the raw fear that was a legacy of the terrors of the Stalin regime as well as of communism’s own ongoing murderous abuses, most of the “proletariat” literally despised the State. “Everyone in my neighborhood was bitter toward Lenin, Stalin, and later Khrushchev,” Elson remembered.
In towns like Kishinev, this tremendous cynicism and distrust of authority went beyond simply an acceptance of criminality. Most people not only did business with mobsters on a daily basis, but held powerful criminals – as opposed to the loathed apparatchiks – in the highest regard. These criminals often enjoyed a reputation among the populace for their Robin Hood-like honesty; they even meted out justice in local tribunals called People’s Courts, where common folk, eschewing State authorities, flocked to solve their personal disputes.
The People’s Courts, which existed in towns and communities throughout the country, were largely administered by a special breed of colorful lawbreaker called vor v zakonye – or “thieves-in-law” – a fraternal order of elite criminals that dates back to the time of the czars. They first arose during the reign of Peter the Great (1682-1725), incubated in the vast archipelago of Russia’s prison camps. There, hard-core felons banded together in tight networks that soon spread throughout the Gulags. Members were sworn to abide by a rigid code of behavior that included never working in a legitimate job, not paying taxes, refusing to fight in the army, and never, for any reason, cooperating with the police or State, unless it was to trick them. A giant eagle with razor-sharp talons emblazoned on their chests announced their status as vors; tattoos on their kneecaps meant they would not bow to anyone. They even developed a secret language that proved to be virtually indecipherable to authorities, and set up a communal criminal fund, or obshchak, to bribe officials, finance business ventures, and help inmates and their families.
The vor brotherhood grew in strength to the point that they began to play an unusual role in the nation’s history. They taught Lenin’s gangs to rob banks to fund the communist revolution. Later, enemies of the new State used them to sow dissension, fear, and chaos. During the Second World War, Stalin devised a plot to annihilate the thriving vor subculture by recruiting them to defend the motherland. Those who fought with the Red Army, defying the age-old prohibition of helping the State, were rewarded by being arrested after the war and thrown into the same prison camps with the vors who had refused to join the epic conflict. The “collaborators” were branded suki, or bitches. At night, when the Arctic concentration camps grew miserably cold, knives were unsheathed, and the two sides hacked each other to pieces; barracks were bombed and set on fire.
The “Vor Wars,” or “Bitches’ Wars,” lasted from 1945 to 1953. When they were over, only the vors who refused to battle the Nazis had survived. By then, they wielded ultimate authority in prison, even over wardens, importing liquor, narcotics, and women. They slept near open windows, away from the communal toilet, where, according to their beliefs, only homosexuals and weaklings were fit to reside. Vors became made men in Soviet prisons only after they were recommended by at least two other vors. Even today, this nearly mythic criminal cult is one of the most dynamic forces in the Russian underworld.
Elson thrived among men like these. “I loved Kishinev,” Elson fondly recalls. “The big guys and the tough guys used to teach me to steal from childhood. They let me go with them on burglaries. I was so skinny and small, they used to send me through the windows, and I used to open the door for them. We used to compare ourselves to the wolves of the forest, because the wolves eat only the weak animals.”
By the age of nine, Elson was a full-fledged member of a fierce street gang. “We used to go from neighborhood to neighborhood to fight. The only reason we did it was to show we were strong and weren’t afraid. When I was eleven, someone pulled a stiletto on me. I couldn’t refuse to fight, because if I refused, I would be a hated person.” His opponent made a swift, jutting move, slicing his blade through Elson’s chin and into his tongue. “It was painful and I wanted to cry, but the gang leader who ordered me to fight was looking at me. I didn’t cry.”
Elson’s parents had little patience for their son’s criminal activities. “Oh, my parents beat the shit out of me,” he said. Elson’s father, Abraham, was a master tailor who fled Poland on the heels of the Nazi invasion. The Russians suspected that he was a German spy and exiled him to Siberia for the duration of the war. Elson’s mother had been previously married, but her first husband died in the war, and their two children perished of starvation. “My mother and father used to tell me: ‘Monya, don’t go with those bad guys, because this reflects on you. You will have a bad reputation.’ But in school, I wasn’t very good. I liked to fight. I liked to steal. The older guys would extort money from me, then I’d extort money from the younger kids.
“But even as a child, I thought, ‘If I was born and raised in a different area, would I be the same, or different?’ But later, I understood that being a criminal was my destiny. I don’t know. I don’t believe in God.”
Inevitably Elson began to have serious run-ins with Soviet law – a crucial step in becoming a full-fledged member of the underworld. If you didn’t break during a police beating, you were considered a stand-up guy. If you cracked, and became a snitch, you’d be labeled a musor, a Russian word that literally meant “garbage,” but that has taken on the pejorative meaning of either “cop” or “rat,” the worst epithet in the Russian criminal lexicon. “Before the detectives interrogated you, they’d try to beat a confession out of you,” Elson said. “They put dirt in special socks and beat your kidneys. Afterward, you urinate blood.” Elson insists that he never squealed.
Before long, Elson graduated to one of the highest callings in the Eastern bloc’s criminal pecking order – a pickpocket. Skilled pickpockets received immense respect from other criminals, and were often accorded leadership status in their gangs. Polish Jewish thieves who came to Russia during World War II were considered the best pickpockets, Elson says. They could slip a wallet out of a jacket, snatch the rubles, and return it in a split second, the victim remaining unaware.
Bent on proving his mettle, Elson moved to Moscow and joined a gang that specialized in extortion. “I don’t want to brag, but I was great at this,” Elson recounted. “I did it thousands of times.” If the victim balked, “I could talk nice, or put a gun to his ear.” Monya’s motto: “Don’t show pity or regret when you [kill someone]. Don’t even think about it.”
Although by the time he was twenty-six, Elson was married, had two young daughters, and was flourishing in his gang life, political events conspired to create an even greater opportunity for him. These were the early years of détente, and the American Jewish establishment and their congressional allies, who had long been trying to bring Soviet Jews westward, saw a way to leverage their cause. Leonid Brezhnev saw détente as a way to shore up an ailing economy. In September 1972, in a speech before the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, Washington State Democratic Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson proposed linking U.S. trade benefits to emigration rights in the Soviet Union. He later co-sponsored the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which withheld most-favored-nation status from socialist countries that restricted Jewish emigration. The effort, which was bitterly opposed by Nixon and Kissinger as a threat to détente, was one of the factors that pressured Russia to allow tens of thousands of Jews to leave the country. In the two-year period between 1972 and 1973 alone, more than 66,000 Russian Jews emigrated, compared to just 2,808 in 1969.
But with what must have been considerable amusement, the Soviets made certain that this vast exodus was not made up solely of innocent, persecuted Jews. Much as Fidel Castro would do several years later during the Mariél boatlift, the KGB took this opportunity to empty its jails of thousands of hard-core criminals, dumping vast numbers of undesirables like Monya Elson on an unsuspecting America, as well as on Israel and other Western nations.
Persecution certainly played no role in Elson’s application for Jewish refugee status. He was typical of his era – a deracinated Soviet Jew with a touch of self-loathing. “They called me a ‘fucking kike’ everywhere,” said Elson, and “if someone called me a Zhid, I fought back.” But otherwise, “I was thinking, What kind of Jew am I? I don’t know any Jewish holidays – I never heard of them. But I sang Russian songs. I ate Russian food. I spoke Russian language. I sucked inside Russian culture.” The only thing he liked about being Jewish per se, he admits, was that some of the Soviet Union’s top crooks were also Jews.
However, if stealing from the workers in the workers’ paradise was pure pleasure, Elson reasoned, then stealing from the workers in the vastly richer capitalist paradise would be nirvana. Fortunately, his Soviet passport was stamped “Jew,” and in 1977 he obtained a precious exit permit, and moved his family to a transit camp outside Vienna, run by the Jewish Agency.
Elson was given an Israeli visa; it was the only way the Soviets would let a Jew leave the U.S.S.R. But like many Jewish refugees, he wanted to go to the United States instead, and well-funded American Jewish organizations who supported the concept of free immigration helped large numbers of them to gain entry to America, infuriating Israel’s Zionist establishment, which believed that Israel should be the destination for all the Jewish people. Soon, he was moved from Vienna to a transit camp near Rome operated by the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society for émigrés headed to Western nations. It was in these camps, where criminals from the far reaches of the Soviet empire converged, languishing for up to months at a time, that the global menace of Russian organized crime was fomented. They proved to be both excellent recruiting stations and networking centers, where gangsters on their way to Brighton Beach met gangsters bound for Antwerp, Brussels, or London. Once the mobsters reached their destinations, they could phone up their new friends for criminal advice, intelligence, and additional contacts. Scattered around the world, Russian criminals passed on what they “learned about the local law enforcement system, the monetary system, how the banks work,” said a frustrated Drug Enforcement Agency official in New York. “And they just started beating the hell out of us. The Italians will come to New York, and that’s it. The most they can do is phone somebody back in Italy. But they don’t know anybody in London or Belgium.”
“It’s the Red Octopus,” said Louis Cardenelli, a DEA supervisor in Manhattan. “We helped foster this global organized crime monster.”
Elson waited in the Rome transit camp for three months. During his idle hours, he pickpocketed unwary Italians, using the plunder to buy designer blue jeans for his wife and daughters. Meanwhile, hoodlum comrades from Moscow who had already visited the United States paid calls on Elson to regale him with the criminal splendors of Brighton Beach. “When I asked Elson why he came to America,” one of his defense lawyers in Brooklyn bluntly acknowledged, “he said, ‘To shake people down.”
When he arrived in New York in 1978 on a flight paid for by the U.S. government, Elson was like a nine-year-old kid who had won a lifetime pass to Disneyland. “I was free!” he said. “I could rob! I could steal! I could do whatever I wanted!”
In the 1970s, more than forty thousand Russian Jews settled in Brighton Beach, the formerly stolid working-class Jewish neighborhood that inspired Neil Simon’s gentle play Brighton Beach Memoirs. It was under the shadow of the elevated subway tracks on Brighton Beach Avenue, bustling with Russian meat markets, vegetable pushcarts, and bakeries, that the Russian gangsters resumed their careers as professional killers, thieves, and scoundrels. By the time of Elson’s arrival, Brighton Beach had already become the seat of the dreaded Organizatsiya, the Russian Jewish mob.
Elson quickly discovered that Brighton Beach was two communities. Affluent Russians resided in the well-kept Art Deco apartment buildings that lined the Atlantic Ocean, while on the many side streets, littered with crack dens and decaying clapboard homes, poor Russian families lived sometimes ten to a squalid room. The neighborhood had decayed so badly that even the local McDonald’s had shut down. Bordered on one side by the ocean and on another by an enormous middle-class housing project referred to by the émigrés as the “Great Wall of China,” the Russians built a closed world, inhospitable to outsiders, that was self-consciously modeled on the city many once called home – Odessa – a tawdry Black Sea port that was once considered the Marseilles of the Soviet Union. Beefy men in fur caps walked down the boardwalk on frigid winter mornings, ice caught in their beards and hair, stopping at vendors to buy pirogi, pastry shells filled with spicy pork, topped with a dollop of sour cream. Movie houses showed first-run Russian-language films; cafés crackled with the voices of gruff conversations in Russian and Ukrainian.
The streets also crackled with gunfire. “Little Odessa” was the new Klondike, a town full of dangerous desperadoes, where the powerful crooks preyed upon the small. During this anarchic epoch of Russian organized crime in America, a “big man” gathered around him other strong men to form a gang. These groups were amoebalike; there was little loyalty, and entrepreneurial wiseguys constantly shifted allegiances in search of a score, vying with one another over Medicare and Medicaid scams, counterfeiting schemes, and drug deals. A professional hit cost as little as $2,000, and it was often cheaper to hire a hit man than it was to pay off a loan.
The gangsters devoted most of their energy to preying on the community they helped to create. Nearly every Russian in Brighton Beach had a family member who was either connected to the mob or paying off an extortionist.
Gang leaders would headquarter their operations in one of the multitude of Russian restaurants and cabarets. The most notorious one, on Brighton Beach Avenue in the heart of Brooklyn’s émigré community, was named, appropriately enough, the Odessa. It was owned by Marat Balagula, a bookish-looking hood, who bought it in 1980 and quickly turned it into mob central. He replaced the flaking paint and frayed industrial carpeting with chrome and parquet, and hired a stunning African-American singer fluent in Russian. Downstairs, he opened a seafood cafeteria.
The Odessa attracted huge crowds of locals, who gorged themselves on inexpensive, family-style meals that included gluttonous portions of chopped liver, caviar, slabs of sable, beef Stroganoff, and skewers of lamb, all washed down with the bottle of Smirnoff vodka that was placed on each table. As a four-piece band that looked more Vegas than Moscow played Sinatra standards and Russian pop tunes, buxom bottle blondes in black leather miniskirts danced with barrel-chested men among the cabaret’s Art Deco columns. A corner of the room was sometimes reserved for members of Hadassah, a woman’s Zionist group, who came to express solidarity with the Russians.
The club had odd brushes with celebrity. After an arch portrait of the Odessa appeared in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town,” it briefly became a popular nightspot for thirty-something yuppies who wanted to savor beans in a Caucasian walnut sauce and the titillating aura of organized crime. And pop singer Taylor Dayne got her first break at the Odessa when she answered an ad in The Village Voice seeking musicians. Dayne, then a plump fifteen-year-old high school girl from Long Island, was friendly with Balagula, and her picture still hangs on the nightclub’s wall. When director Paul Mazursky wanted to film the cabaret scene in Moscow on the Hudson with Robin Williams in the Odessa, Balagula declined, afraid of drawing too much attention to the club. The scene was shot at the National restaurant, a rival Brighton Beach mob hangout then owned by Alexander “Cabbagehead” Skolnick, a Danny DeVito look-alike with a violent streak.
Late at night, after the last diner left the Odessa, the American version of the People’s Court often convened upstairs in the disco. But unlike back in the Soviet Union, in Brighton Beach the tradition of influential criminals adjudicating local disputes “became corrupt,” explained a prominent Russian émigré. “There is never a time when the judges don’t take a piece of the action.” The judges were often Balagula and two of his thugs, who meted out sentences while seated around a table in the cabaret. The lights were dimmed, and no food or water was provided. “It is very, very dark, like a Godfather movie,” said an émigré who was summoned to several proceedings. “The first thing I said was ‘Why don’t you turn on the lights?’ Silence. Total silence.”
It was just such a setting that greeted the small-time jewel thief Vyacheslav Lyubarsky, who was ordered to appear in “court” to settle a $40,000 gambling dispute. The judges quickly ruled against him, and when Lyubarsky balked, he was suspended, naked, from a light fixture. Then one of the judges, Emile Puzyretsky, whacked out on coke and vodka, threatened to disembowel him. Puzyretsky, who had spent twelve years in the Soviet Gulag for murder and was decorated with Technicolor tattoos of a skeleton, bats, a snow leopard, and an angel, had become one of Little Odessa’s most feared enforcers. “He uses his knife on every occasion,” notes his FBI file.
As a newcomer to Brighton Beach, Elson found himself in a strange and unfamiliar land, and he had to learn a different set of survival skills. “One thing that disappointed me about America is that people don’t carry money,” he said with a frown. “Everything is credit card.” He adapted in the manner he knew best: “I started working credit card scams, even though I didn’t know how to speak English.”
Elson soon teamed up with forty-eight-year-old Yuri Brokhin, an intellectual of modest accomplishments who had immigrated to the United States with his wife in 1972. Since then he had managed to foster a reputation for himself as a prominent Russian Jewish dissident. He wrote two books, as well as articles for Dissent, Jewish Digest, and the New York Times Magazine, most of which were fierce anticommunist polemics.
“I heard about Brokhin in Moscow,” Elson said. “He was well known. His nickname was ‘Student.’ I used to call him ‘Brain.’”
Together, the pair embarked on a lucrative crime spree, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of jewelry, often using a simple, no-risk scam. Corruption in Manhattan’s diamond district on 47th Street was so rampant at the time that the authorities had all but given up policing it. All Brokhin and Elson had to do was to identify crooked store-owners, visit their shops, and demand the goods. “We tried to rob thieves,” Elson says. They knew that their “victims” were so deep into their own crimes that they’d never call the police, but would simply pass the losses on to their insurance companies. Soon, storeowners throughout the diamond district were seeking out the Russian robbers to stage fake burglaries so that they, too, could scam their insurers.
The duo employed a different gambit to rob honest jewelers. They’d dress up as ultra-Orthodox Jews, replete with paste-on beards, side curls, long black coats, and black hats. Entering a jewelry store run by an Orthodox Jew, they would ask to see a variety of expensive diamond stones from the display case. Brokhin would babble away in Yiddish, distracting the salesman, while Elson switched the diamonds with zirconium. They’d continue to haggle, and after failing to make a deal, would slip away with the jewels tucked snugly inside the pockets of their coats. The con is called the “fast-finger.” “We made a lot of money with that,” Elson boasts.
Once, after pulling the scam on a trip to Chicago, the two men were arrested in their Orthodox Jewish attire as they boarded a plane at Midway Airport. It happened to be Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, when observant Jews are strictly forbidden to travel. An airport security guard who was Jewish became suspicious, thinking the men looked more like Cuban terrorists than rabbis. Pictures of them in Hasidic garb appeared the next day in Chicago newspapers. Brokhin’s wife rushed to Chicago with $175,000 in cash for bail; somehow, they both got off without a jail sentence. Their records were also expunged. “It’s a lot of money to get off the hook” and beat a felony rap, said Elson enigmatically.
Although they were pulling in good money, it was still a small-time operation and Elson was burning with ambition. He increasingly turned to vicious acts of drug-influenced extortion to make a name for himself. Failing to move up the criminal food chain, he decided to join the most powerful gang in Brighton Beach, headed by the rapacious Evsei Agron. Elson, however, was disappointed in his new boss’s management style. “Agron wanted to be the sun, but he didn’t want the sun’s rays to fall on somebody else,” Elson grumbled. “I wanted to kill him. But you see, it was not so easy.”
The tempestuous gangster from Kishinev realized that his future – if he had one at all – showed little promise in the Darwinian world of Brighton Beach. Frustrated, Elson trekked to the jungles of South America in 1984 to set up a cocaine smuggling operation. “I went to Peru, I went to Bolivia, I passed through a lot of South America,” Elson recounted. Although he didn’t yet speak Spanish, he ventured deep into the tropical rain forest to purchase cocaine. “I wasn’t interested in one key, two keys, three keys. I was making huge deals,” crowed Elson, who operated out of Europe and Israel. Still, the criminal big time eluded him and he was incarcerated in Israel for trafficking in cocaine.
Years later, however, Elson would return to Brighton Beach with a vengeance, creating one of the most powerful Russian mob families in the world, while initiating a gangland war that left a trail of bodies from the street corners of New York to the back alleys of Moscow.
The man who deprived Monya Elson of his warm spot, seemed, at first glance, too unprepossessing a figure to become Brighton Beach’s first don. A short, grandfatherly man, Evsei Agron attracted little attention as he passed through Immigration at Kennedy Airport on October 8, 1975. He was one of the 5,200 Soviet Jewish émigrés to enter the United States that year, many of them gangsters sent from Russia by the KGB. He had listed his occupation as “jeweler,” and perhaps he had even once been one. But he had also served seven years for murder in a Soviet prison camp, from which he emerged as a vor. After leaving Russia in 1971, he ran a large prostitution and gambling ring in Hamburg, West Germany. And even though he had supposedly been cast out of the vor brotherhood for welshing on a gambling debt, the order’s ferocious reputation gave him sufficient cachet to quickly seize power when he arrived in Brighton Beach. Little else is known about Agron’s early years. His records from the Soviet Union were sealed, and few of his victims from the Old Country who are still alive are willing to share their reminiscences.
From a modest office at the El Caribe Country Club, a catering hall and restaurant, the Leningrad-born Agron ran a vicious extortion ring that terrorized the Russian émigré community. “They were scared shitless of him,” FBI agent William Moschella has recalled. By 1980, his gang was bringing in tens of thousands of dollars a week. Agron’s victims ran the gamut from Russian doctors and lawyers to shopkeepers and grocery store owners on Brighton Beach Avenue. “What if they refused to pay?” chuckled a gang member in mock amusement. “We’d beat them in their store right in front of everybody. But they paid. They knew what was coming if they didn’t pay. They knew they’d get murdered, if they don’t pay.”
Agron once threatened to kill a Russian émigré’s daughter on her wedding day if he didn’t pay $15,000. Going to the police would have simply guaranteed a late-night visit from one of Agron’s henchmen, like the Nayfeld brothers, or the forty-five-year-old Technicolor killer Emile Puzyretsky. “Puzyretsky had a great contempt for life. He killed his enemies with force, fury, and no mercy,” a Russian Militia colonel recalled.
One of the most terrifying sounds in Brighton Beach was Puzyretsky’s voice on the other end of the phone. “You have to pay!” Puzyretsky screamed at a recalcitrant shakedown victim in one tape-recorded conversation. “Otherwise you’re not going to live! And if you survive, you’re not going to be able to work anymore!”
“Willy, please don’t terrorize me anymore,” pleaded the distraught Russian émigré, who was being ordered to hand over $50,000. “We aren’t livin’ in a jungle. We live in U.S.A.”
“You fuckin’ rat … I’ll make you a heart attack. This is the last time you’ll be able to see. If you don’t give the money … just wait and see what’s goin’ to happen to you.”
Puzyretsky was paid – with interest.
The Nayfeld brothers were just as savage. The steroid-enhanced thugs emigrated from Gomel, Russia, in the early 1970s. The black-bearded Benjamin, a former member of the Soviet Olympic weightlifting team, was a bear of a man with a twenty-two-inch neck. He once killed a Jewish youth in a Brighton Beach parking lot in front of dozens of witnesses by picking him up like a ragdoll with one hand and plunging a knife into his heart with the other. The teenager had allegedly insulted Benjamin’s girlfriend and reached for a weapon. After the murder, eighteen witnesses vouched for Benjamin’s version of events, insisting the stabbing was a justifiable homicide, and the case was dropped.
By all accounts, Boris Nayfeld was even more fearsome than his brother. To this day, superstitious Russian émigrés insist that his eyes are sheer white orbs, a sign that he has no soul and is possessed by the devil.
Olga, the owner of two hair salons in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, recalls the day in the mid-1980s when Boris and Agron swaggered into her brother’s Brooklyn restaurant and ordered him to sell his one-third stake at a rock-bottom price. “The restaurant was not doing well,” she says. “He wanted to sell, but at a fair price.” When he refused, “Boris clubbed my brother over the head with his gun.”
Olga and her family lived in the same Brighton Beach apartment complex as Nayfeld and his non-Jewish wife. “Boris’s kids were always playing with my kids in my house,” said Olga, still enraged over the decade-old incident. One night, she tailed Boris’s Mercedes. At an intersection, she hit her brights, and flew out of the car to pick a fight: “How dare you, you shit! To do this in the house where you live, you bastard!”
“We’re only trying to help your brother,” replied an unfazed Nayfeld, who with Agron stole the restaurant anyway.
Resistance like Olga’s was rare. For the most part, the community endured the horrible violence inflicted on them by a large and growing criminal class. They had left a brutal society where the state and the government were as crooked as the crooks. Their blatant distrust of authority carried over to the United States. The American government, which had generously given them refuge and financial assistance, was still the enemy. There was a great tolerance for white-collar crime. The new émigrés routinely cheated on their taxes, stole food stamps and welfare benefits, and shopped in sable coats while their late-model Mercedes were parked in the mall. Medicare, Medicaid, and other forms of insurance scams were ubiquitous. Stealing from the government was as much a part of their culture as was paying off the mob. Their own xenophobia was one of their greatest enemies. It allowed the mobsters in their midst to act with impunity.
However viciously cruel his subordinates, it was Agron who was despised above all in Brighton Beach. His own brand of cruelty involved carrying around an electric cattle prod, with which he enjoyed personally torturing his victims. Unlike some Russian vors, Agron held fear above honor. “If Agron had been an honorable godfather, he wouldn’t have had to use brute force to extort shopkeepers,” says Ivan, a former resident of Brighton Beach and a Gulag vet. “Instead, he would have been showered with gifts, both as a sign of homage and as payment for protection from ruthless street predators like Monya Elson. The owners of the stores would have said, ‘Oh, please take from me.’”
The widespread antipathy toward Agron finally found its release one night in 1980. While strolling down the Coney Island boardwalk, Agron was shot in the stomach and lost part of his lower intestine.
“We hired a retired cop to stand guard over him at Coney Island Hospital,” recalled a Genovese wiseguy who had begun a close alliance with Agron. “I have a friend in police intelligence. He went to talk to Evsei, who had tubes in his nose and arms.”
“Do you know who shot you?” asked the detective.
“Yes,” Agron nodded.
The detective reached into his suit and took out a ballpoint pen and pad. “Who? We’ll take care of it,” he said soothingly.
Wagging his finger, Agron rasped, “I’ll take care of it myself.”
There was no shortage of theories about who shot Agron: Perhaps it was connected to Agron’s local gambling debts, said the smart money on the Brighton Beach boardwalk. Perhaps the hit was contracted by someone Agron had chiseled in Germany, the Genovese source surmised. Perhaps a member of his own gang thought it was time to replace the imperious don, shopkeepers along Brighton Beach Avenue prayed.
Agron shrugged off the attempt on his life. He remained supremely self-confident. His boys were making major scores in everything from truck hijackings to Medicare fraud. He even purchased a Russian-language newspaper in Brighton Beach so the burgeoning émigré community could read all the news that was fit to print according to the little don.
The paper was torched.
Still, Agron retained an iron grip over the most powerful Russian crime group in Brighton Beach, with outposts in at least a half dozen North American cities. Agron’s criminal authority was bolstered by two highly potent allies: the Genovese crime family and Ronald Greenwald, a politically savvy, well-connected Orthodox Jewish rabbi. These connections, Agron concluded, made him invincible. More than that, without Greenwald’s careful nurturing of Agron’s criminal career, and the Italian Mafia’s muscle, the Russian mob in America might never have been anything more than a minor annoyance, a two-bit gang of émigré hoodlums.
The nexus between the Russian mob and the Italians was a man named Murray Wilson, whose consummate money laundering skills had earned him a reputation at the FBI as a modern-day Meyer Lansky. Wilson, a Genovese associate, engineered some of the Russian mob’s first big criminal scores, and eventually he would help a second generation of Russian racketeers become a financially sophisticated global peril.
Wilson was raised in a bare-knuckles neighborhood in the Bronx, where Jewish gangs like Murder Inc. once roamed. He preferred hanging out with street corner wiseguys to pursuing a “legit” career, like his able cousin, Marvin Josephson, the founder of International Creative Management, the largest theatrical and literary talent agency in the world. Barely managing to eke out a diploma from Taft High School, Wilson nonetheless effortlessly mastered the intricacies of offshore accounts, letters of credit, and complicated international stock market transactions. In the process, Wilson, who has an import-export firm and is a restaurateur, became the focus of at least eight criminal probes.
Wilson’s patron in the Genovese family was underboss Venero “Benny Eggs” Mangano. Benny Eggs began his career as a soldier with Lucky Luciano and rose to oversee the Genovese family’s multibillion-dollar-a-year racketeering enterprise. He once boasted over an FBI wire that he surrounded himself with Jewish associates as fronts to help generate and hide illicit funds because they were shrewder at such financial dealings than the Italians. According to Benny Eggs, when a Jew had an annual income of two or three million dollars he would declare a healthy $300,000 of it on his taxes, enough to avoid raising any suspicions with federal authorities. An Italian wiseguy, on the other hand, might declare only ten grand. It was the IRS, he warned, that had nailed Al Capone.
Fortunately for La Cosa Nostra, Wilson, a pugnacious, right-wing Jewish militant who was active in resettling Russian Jewish émigrés in Brooklyn, quickly deduced that many of the new arrivals were not long-suffering, downtrodden Jewish dissidents, but professional thieves and hit men – a potential bonanza for the Genovese crime family. The Italians were not only getting the services of highly skilled Russian crews, but were extending their control to a new neighborhood. They already had affiliations, for example, with the Greek mob in Queens and the coke-pushing Dominican gangs in Washington Heights.
Wilson introduced Agron to the Genovese chieftains, forming the nucleus of the dark alliance. “A day didn’t go by when a truck hijacking or a jewelry heist didn’t go down,” a Genovese goodfella who committed many street crimes with the Russians admitted. “It was a time of high adrenaline.” Although Agron was very much the junior partner, enamored of the Italians for their well-entrenched national power base, their vast army of soldiers and political connections, the Genovese bosses valued Agron’s crew for its tireless work ethic, ruthlessness, and most especially, its global connections.
Nevertheless, there were major cultural differences between the ethnic crime groups that sometimes caused friction: with a few exceptions, the Italian gangsters lived quiet lives in modest houses, trying not to call attention to themselves. On the other hand, “the Russians have a tremendous zest for life and like to live large,” says James DiPietro, a criminal attorney in Brooklyn who has represented both Russian and Italian underworld figures. “They keep saying we are Russians and we are proud of being Russians. Russians are the best! One Halloween at Rasputin” – a Russian mob haunt in Brooklyn – “they came in Ronald Reagan masks, in limos; they love to flaunt their affluence.”
And unlike the Russians, the Italian mobsters more or less adhere to established rules of conduct. “The Italians don’t kill civilians – not even the family members of rats. The Russians have no such codes,” says DiPietro.
Rabbi Ronald Greenwald did as much for Agron’s career as did the Italian gangsters, and then helped groom a new generation of Russian wiseguys to enter corrupt Third World countries and loot their natural resources, a charge the rabbi denies. But well-placed sources say that some of the little don’s biggest scams were hatched in the rabbi’s downtown Manhattan commodities firm. Greenwald says he first met Agron in West Berlin while he was innocently sitting in a hotel lobby wearing a yarmulke. The rabbi says Agron started a conversation with him about Judaism. He claims he didn’t know that Agron was a vicious extortionist who tortured victims with a cattle prod and ran an infamous prostitution and gambling empire. Greenwald allegedly helped Agron get a U.S. visa, according to several former business associates of both men. The rabbi denies that he helped Agron enter the United States, but admits that the mobster would sometimes visit his Manhattan office. In fact his office was a magnet for a host of Russian and Italian gangsters, as well as a powerful U.S. congressman and a convicted KGB spy.
Greenwald was born on the Lower East Side in 1934. “I was the only kid in school who played hardball without a glove,” Greenwald told me. “That’s how tough I am!” He went to Jewish day schools and then to rabbinical college in Cleveland. Though he is an ordained Orthodox rabbi, he never took the pulpit. “I felt I should be out in the work world.”
At one time or another Greenwald has been a bank director, president of a small business college, gas station owner, chaplain for the New York state police, a liaison between a segment of New York’s Orthodox Jewish community and the state Republican party – and a high-risk entrepreneur with ties to the Genovese crime family and the Russian mob.
But it was as a political operative for Richard Nixon that Greenwald first made a name for himself. The then-president had received 17 percent of the Jewish vote in 1968, and he wanted to double it in 1972. New York, with its huge Jewish population, was a crucial state. And Greenwald, as one 1971 New York Times story put it, was “key to [Nixon’s] New York effort.”
Greenwald was recruited by CREEP – the Committee to Reelect the President – to mine for Orthodox Jewish votes. He toured synagogues, warning that McGovern would betray Israel and wipe away Jewish gains by giving away too much to blacks. His efforts paid off: Nixon received nearly 36 percent of the Jewish vote in 1972.
The rabbi was repeatedly in the throes of some political scandal or other. After Nixon was reelected, for example, he was rewarded with a plum post at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare as a consultant on Jewish poverty programs, including a job-training program for Brooklyn’s Hasidic community. Greenwald was soon being investigated by a young federal prosecutor named Rudolph Giuliani for allegedly placing jobs program trainees in a garage in Williamsburg of which he was part-owner, as well as for creating no-show jobs. (The investigation was dropped, and Greenwald has denied wrongdoing.)
A few years later, he was in front of Giuliani again, this time pleading for Marc Rich and Pinky Green – the billionaire fugitive financiers and commodities brokers who fled the United States in 1983 one step ahead of a sixty-five-count federal indictment for fraud and income tax evasion. Greenwald, who was their business representative in the United States, tried to cut a deal that would bring them home to face civil, but not criminal, charges. Hasidic community leader Rabbi Bernard Weinberger, who along with a group of Orthodox rabbis sat in on the meetings, said that Greenwald told Giuliani that the fugitives were great humanitarians because they gave vast sums of money to Jewish charities. Giuliani was unmoved.
Thanks to his friendships with Greenwald and the Italians, Agron was soon participating in schemes that dwarfed the type of street crime that had been the Russians’ mainstay. In 1983, federal agents investigating a Mafia skim of the casino at the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas stumbled onto a multimillion-dollar fraud perpetuated jointly by Agron and Wilson and planned with Greenwald in Greenwald’s office. (“Ridiculous,” Greenwald says.) The Dunes was owned by Morris Shenker, Jimmy Hoffa’s attorney and a longtime target of FBI probes. During the 1950s and 1960s, Shenker, himself a Russian-born Jew, had invested hundreds of millions of dollars of the Teamsters union Central States Pension Fund, which he and Hoffa controlled, into the Dunes and other famous Las Vegas hotels, giving the Mafia a hidden share of the gambling Mecca. According to the FBI, some of that money was being siphoned off in the scam set up by Wilson and the others. He arranged for Agron and a dozen members of his crew to fly into Las Vegas on all-expense-paid junkets. The gangsters were each given lines of credit of up to $50,000, but instead of gambling the money, they simply turned their chips over to Wilson. The chips were later cashed in; the markers never repaid. In this way, over a period of several months, the Russians helped defraud the Dunes of more than $1 million. The government believed that Shenker had masterminded the scheme. He eventually plundered the Dunes into Chapter 11. Indicted for personal bankruptcy fraud in 1989, Shenker died before the government could mount its case. When Russian-speaking FBI agents traveled to Brighton Beach to question the erstwhile junketeers, “the Russians wouldn’t talk to us,” said the agent who ran the investigation. “They said, ‘What can you do to us after the KGB and the Gulag?’ The only thing they were afraid of is that we would deport them, and we won’t do that.”2
By the mid-1980s not only had Agron achieved a certain measure of criminal notoriety and power, but he was also beginning to add more sophisticated schemes to his criminal repertoire, a development that did not go unnoticed among the Italian Mafia’s bosses. The Italians were particularly impressed with the Russians’ growing adeptness at bilking financial markets, which was aided by members of a younger generation of Russians who were now returning from graduate schools with MBAs and getting jobs on Wall Street. Gambino crime family head Paul Castellano, for instance, was overheard on an FBI wire praising a Russian fraud that involved manipulating the stock in Bojangles, a fast food chain.
But as potent a force as Agron had become, he was still prey to the cutthroat struggles for dominance that continued among the lawless Russian gangs, and on a cold evening in January 1984, as he walked up a gentle slope from the garage in the basement of his home on 100 Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, Agron was shot again – this time, twice in the face and neck at point-blank range. The don was rushed for a second time to Coney Island Hospital. Though Dr. Larissa Blinkin was unable to remove the slugs, she did save his life, but not without leaving the mobster’s face paralyzed on one side, twisted in a permanent sneer. Once again, when the police asked him if he knew the assailant, he said he’d take care of it himself.
As he had during the earlier attack, Agron believed he knew who had authorized the hit. He had recently been feuding with an upstart Russian gang led by Boris Goldberg, an Israeli army veteran from the U.S.S.R., and Ukrainian-born David “Napoleon” Shuster, a criminal mastermind who was reputedly the best pickpocket in Brighton Beach. The Goldberg gang maintained a formidable arsenal in a safe house on West 23rd Street in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. The armory included an assortment of pistols and silencers, and cartons of hand grenades and plastic explosives, as well as numerous remote control detonators.
Goldberg owned a kiddy-ride company off Kings Highway in Brooklyn called Rainbow Amusements. As a cover to score narcotics, “he used to do a lot of travel to the Far East to look at new rides,” says Joel Campanella, a former New York City cop who is now a U.S. Customs official. The gang sold coke out of its Chelsea stronghold to midlevel street dealers, and, according to police statements made by a gang member, to film stars and the managers of rock bands.
It was also the scene of nonstop drug and sex orgies. Goldberg, a bland-looking man with black-framed, coke-bottle glasses, had a growing cocaine dependency that made him so paranoid that once, after hearing a siren, he flushed two kilos of coke down the toilet, then pulled a sweaty wad of cash from his pocket and ordered an underling to run out and procure two more kilos so he could continue his sybaritic party.
When Goldberg wasn’t holed up in his hideout, he was often cuddling with his girlfriend Tonia Biggs, the daughter of Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione. Biggs was an editor of Forum, an adult magazine also published by her father. “She lived in Beverly Hills [and] was about thirty years old, blond, big chest, but a little sagging,” Goldberg gang member Charlie Rivera, a razor-thin man who is half Sicilian on his mother’s side, told law enforcement agents. “She also had a penthouse [in New York], and he sold coke out of both places. Boris would bring coke out from New York and he would sell some out there.” Biggs later conceded that she let Goldberg use her home for coke parties, but she denied helping him peddle it.
2 On June 30, 1989, Murray Wilson was convicted by a federal jury in Las Vegas of conspiring to defraud the Dunes of more than a million dollars. The feds offered Wilson his freedom if he would flip on Shenker, who they believed ordered the scam. He declined, preferring to take his chances with the judge at sentencing. It was a bad bet: he was sentenced to three years. The assistant U.S. attorney lacerated Wilson, calling him “a conniving, calculating thief” and “a habitually violent man” who is “known to have a major influence over the Russian Jewish Mafia, the group that is tied to the Genovese LCN [La Cosa Nostra] family. The group specializes in robberies, thefts, and burglaries. Evsei Agron, a close associate of Wilson, is one of the individuals that Wilson admitted recommending to the Dunes. Agron [runs] the Russian Jewish Mafia.”
Meanwhile, the Goldberg gang, hopped up on drugs, insanely violent and indiscriminate, was responsible for a staggering string of robberies, shootings, insurance frauds, auto thefts, and narcotics sales. They hurled grenades at the storefronts of recalcitrant extortion victims in California, and performed contract murders as far away as Texas. They assassinated competing drug dealers, the wife of a gang member suspected of cheating on him, and an elderly man, who was chased across a busy boulevard in Queens and shot twice in the head for refusing to vacate his rent-stabilized apartment. On another occasion, gang members were paid to kill two teenagers who had robbed and beaten a man with a hammer known on Brooklyn streets as Jacmo. Jacmo, who owned an antique Mercedes-Benz dealership, was also a major drug dealer with a long rap sheet. Jacmo dispensed the contract at Coney Island Hospital. A day later, one of the teens was lured from his apartment to meet a “friend” who was supposedly waiting downstairs in a parked car. When he peered inside the window, he was shot in the face with a. 38 caliber revolver loaded with copper-jacketed bullets.
It was inevitable that, given their shared interests in the spoils of Brighton Beach, Goldberg and Agron would run afoul of each other. One issue that proved to be a constant source of friction was the collection of extortion money from Brighton Beach businesses. Sit-downs to discuss their turf disputes had never been able to resolve the problems. Once, the Nayfeld brothers even broke Shuster’s nose. Goldberg finally became so frustrated that he put out a standing $25,000 contract on Agron’s head.
In May 1984, Agron commanded Goldberg to attend a meeting at the El Caribe Country Club. Goldberg, his lieutenant Rivera, and several other gang members showed up to find fifty taciturn, heavily armed Russians waiting for them around a large oak table. Agron demanded to know if Goldberg was responsible for having had him shot. In the dim room, Agron’s face seemed to dissolve into the shadows, but there was enough light to see that he was cradling a shotgun as he sat in a white wicker chair across from Rivera. The diminutive don leaned forward and spat, “Why you shoot me in the fucking face?”
Goldberg and Rivera were silent, each waiting for the other to respond. “We didn’t do it,” Rivera said finally, although he was, in fact, the one who had disfigured Agron in the botched hit ordered by Goldberg.
Although Agron had not seen the shooter’s face, he had caught a glimpse of the man’s boots as he lay crumpled on the ground.
“Let me see your fuckin’ boots,” Agron growled.
“I don’t own a pair,” Rivera replied, his eyes darting to his feet.
Eying him suspiciously, Agron looked around the room and then demanded that Goldberg’s crew all put their feet up on the table. He intended to inspect each of their footwear.
When nobody moved, he shouted, “What’s da matter? You don’t want to?”
One by one, Goldberg’s men raised their feet onto the table. The don was enraged: he didn’t recognize anyone’s shoes.
Goldberg settled back in his chair uneasily. Speaking in Russian, he swore he was innocent. But if Agron wanted trouble, he warned, he had brought sufficient firepower. Agron sent a scout outside, who returned and reported that the parking lot was swarming with gunmen. It was a Mexican standoff.
Goldberg convinced Agron that he was not involved in the attempt on his life, and the meeting ended without bloodshed. But if Goldberg was the most likely suspect in the attempt on Agron’s life, he was hardly the only rival who wanted the don dead.
On May 4, 1985, Agron’s brawny chauffeur Boris Nayfeld was sitting outside his boss’s apartment building in a black Lincoln Town Car, waiting to make the weekly drive across the East River into Manhattan. Every Saturday morning, Agron went to the Russian and Turkish Baths on Manhattan’s old Lower East Side. The ornate nineteenth-century bathhouse had been a favorite hangout of Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, and Lucky Luciano during Prohibition, when the establishment kept a special cubbyhole behind the towel counter where the gangsters could deposit their tommy guns. It was a perfect place for Agron to have sit-downs with his pals, all of them sweating in the heat of the 200-degree steam room while burly attendants struck their backs with bundles of oak branches.
On that morning, the fifty-three-year-old Agron was still upstairs in his sixth-floor apartment, shaving in his lavish bathroom. Its imported marble and gold-leaf fixtures – a recently completed renovation that had cost $150,000 – were elegant even by Russian mob standards. Agron patted his disfigured face with expensive cologne, slipped on his baggy, blue pin-striped suit, and grabbed his brown fedora. While most Russian mobsters swaggered around in sharkskin suits and enough gold jewelry to stand out like lighthouses on a moonless night, Agron’s associates joked that he dressed more like a longtime resident of a senior citizens’ home. Just before he left, he told his common-law wife, a striking blond cabaret singer, that he would meet her for dinner that night at a Brighton Beach restaurant.
At exactly 8:35 A.M. Agron pressed the elevator button outside his apartment door. Suddenly, a man wearing a jogging suit and sunglasses stepped from behind a corner in the hallway and shot him at point-blank range, hitting him twice in the right temple. He fell to the floor, blood pooling around him on the black and white marble tiles.
A few days after Agron was found in a pool of his own blood, his driver, Boris Nayfeld, strolled into what had been Agron’s modest office at the El Caribe Country Club in Brighton Beach. He was there to begin his new job as the driver and bodyguard of the man who benefited the most from the execution of Evsei Agron: Marat Balagula, the new godfather of the Russian mob.
Virtually everyone in law enforcement who has had anything to do with investigating the Russian mob believes Balagula ordered the hit, but he has always denied it. “Evsei used to come to the Odessa [restaurant] and pick fights,” Balagula claims. “Sometimes ten or twenty people would get into a brawl. Maybe Evsei was killed by someone he fought with before.”
Balagula had been serving as Agron’s consigliere for several years, and while he was always careful to pay Agron the respect due a “great man,” he had his own ideas. All along, he had been forging a rival criminal syndicate of his own, and as Balagula’s star began to rise, explains a former insider, Agron “wanted a piece of the action. Because of his status, Agron expected something.” What Agron got, of course, was two bullets in the head.
Within a few months of seizing power, Balagula demonstrated that he was the very model of a modern don. Unlike Agron, who had been a thuggish neighborhood extortionist, Balagula was a brilliant, coldly efficient crime boss who was soon not only conspicuously enjoying the lushest version of the American dream but bestowing his largesse on members of the small Russian émigré community.
“Marat was the king of Brighton Beach,” recalled a former employee. “He had a Robin Hood complex. People would come over from Russia and he’d give them jobs. He liked professional men. Guys came over and couldn’t practice medicine or use their engineering degrees. He sought them out. He was fascinated with intellectuals. He co-opted them. He put them into the gasoline business, he put them into car washes or taxi companies. He’d reinvest his own money in their business if they were having trouble. He had a heart.” Such generosity was, of course, also good for building loyalty. It seemed that everyone in Brighton Beach owed him a favor, and he wasn’t hesitant about collecting on them.
Though Brighton Beach residents had good reason to be tight-lipped about Balagula, tales of his enormous wealth began circulating in cafés and over dinner tables: he tried to purchase an island off the coast of South Africa to set up a bank for money laundering; he circled Manhattan on luxury yachts, holding all-night drug and sex orgies; he rode in a custom stretch limo, white and immaculate, with a black-liveried chauffeur and stocked with ice-cold bottles of vodka. “Marat throws around diamonds the way we throw around dollar bills,” Joe Galizia, a soldier in the Genovese family, enviously told an associate in a conversation taped by police.
“Everybody in Brighton Beach talked about Balagula in hushed tones,” says Ray Jermyn, former chief of the Rackets Bureau for the Suffok County DA in New York. “These were people who knew him from the Old Country. They were really, genuinely scared of this guy.”
Marat Balagula was born in 1943 in Orenburg, a small Russian town, at the height of World War II. His mother, Zinaida, fled with the children from their home in Odessa as the German Wehrmacht swept across the Russian steppes. Marat’s father, Jakov, was a lieutenant in the Red Army; Balagula claims that he was with one of the armored corps that stormed Berlin during the last desperate hours of the war.
In the harshness of the Stalin era, the Balagulas led a comfortable, middle-class life. Jakov worked in a factory manufacturing locks, as did his wife. Young Marat, an average high school student, was drafted into the Soviet army at the age of nineteen and served as a bursar for three years, after which the party assigned him to manage a small food co-op in Odessa. Determined to get ahead, Marat attended night school, receiving a diploma as a teacher of mathematics and then a business degree in economics and mathematics. Like many ambitious Russians with a capitalist predilection, he promptly plunged into the country’s flourishing black market. He quickly learned to attend to the demanding appetites of the apparatchiks, making certain the choicest meats and produce was diverted to them.
He was only twenty-two years old when he was rewarded with a prestigious job as a bursar on the Ivan Frankel, a Soviet cruise ship that catered to foreign tourists. According to American law enforcement sources and Brighton Beach colleagues, party bosses slipped Balagula currency, gold, valuable Russian artifacts, and stolen artwork to sell to the tourists or to fence in Europe. “It was a good job,” Balagula recalls. “I got good money. My salary was in dollars and rubles. I traveled to Australia, France, England, and Italy. The KGB gave me visas, no problem. I brought back lots of stuff: stereos, cameras. I was not middle-class. I was upper-middle-class. I had a nice apartment in Odessa, a dacha on the Black Sea.”
He met his wife, Alexandra, at a friend’s wedding party in 1965 and married her the following year. Because she didn’t like his traveling, in 1971, after five years at sea, he got himself appointed manager of the largest food co-op in the Ukraine, a huge promotion that allowed him to rise to even greater heights as a black marketeer. On his thirtieth birthday, the flourishing Balagula threw himself a gala party at his dacha in the sunny Crimea. Many of the region’s elite were in attendance – including Mikhail Gorbachev, then a young regional party boss, who posed for a photo with Marat and his wife. Balagula later bragged to his Brighton Beach mob associates that Gorbachev was on his pad, a claim that seems doubtful: even then, Gorbachev was a stern reformer. It would have been impossible, however, for a Soviet party boss to avoid dealing with black marketeers in some way, since they played such an integral role in the economic life of the country.
The fact that Balagula was Jewish apparently never hindered his career, even though government-sponsored anti-Semitism surged after Israel’s victory over five Arab armies in the June 1967 Six Day War. “I never felt anti-Semitism,” Balagula says, though he admits he was only nominally a Jew: he never attended Odessa’s lone synagogue and was ignorant of Jewish history and religion. “Jews had some of the best positions in the country. They were the big artists, musicians – they had big money.”
When he decided to journey to America, therefore, it was not because he suffered as a Jew, though he concedes, “I used that as an excuse when I applied for my visa.” Although he was leading the charmed life of a high-flying black marketeer, he decided to leave it behind when “I saw with my own eyes how people lived in the West,” says Balagula. “This pushed me to move.” A business associate explains: “Marat said he read about capitalism and knew he could do well over here.”
On January 13, 1977, Balagula, his wife, and their two young daughters, together with his elderly parents and younger brother, Leon, moved to Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, where a small enclave of German Jews who had fled from Hitler lived precariously among drug dealers and boom-box din. Balagula attended English classes arranged by a Manhattan-based organization that settles Soviet Jews, which then found him a job in the garment district. He worked for six months as a textile cutter for $3.50 an hour, claims Alexandra, his wife. “It was hard for us, with no language, no money,” she says.
Balagula’s fortunes improved markedly when he relocated his family to Brighton Beach and he started to work for the infamous vor Evsei Agron. “Everybody knew his name,” Alexandra cheerfully recalled. “He was so much in the [Russian] newspapers.”
Agron, it turned out, was no match for the ambitious Balagula. While Agron’s technical expertise didn’t go beyond seeking sadistic new uses for his electric cattle prod, Balagula wanted to lead the Organizatsiya into the upscale world of white-collar crime, and with the experienee he had gained in the Soviet Union, he developed a business acumen that put him in a class by himself. Surrounded by a cadre of Russian economists and math prodigies at the Odessa restaurant, he acquired a knowledge of global markets that enabled him to make millions in the arcane world of commodities trading. He also energetically cultivated the Italian mobsters he met as Agron’s consigliere. After Agron was executed, Balagula organized his followers in a hierarchy, much like the Italian Mafia, and before long, he succeeded in transforming the Organizatsiya into a multibillion-dollar-a-year criminal enterprise that stretched across the tatters of communist Eastern Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Ultimately, however, it was Balagula’s spectacular success in the gasoline bootlegging business – a scheme that would reportedly earn him hundreds of millions of dollars and an honored position with the Italian Mafia – that would usher in the first Golden Age of Russian organized crime in America.
Balagula’s bootlegging career began modestly enough. Within just a year after arriving in New York, he managed to gain control over fourteen gas stations. He then formed two fuel dealerships, and bought gas from a corporation owned by the Nayfeld brothers. This transaction was the foundation for an ingenious way to avoid paying billions of dollars of gasoline taxes.
Gasoline bootleggers, mostly Turkish and Greek immigrants, had been operating in New York since the early 1960s. They simply collected taxes at the pump and instead of turning the money over to the government, pocketed the cash and disappeared before the IRS caught on. “They’d make their $600,000 and go back and buy an island and you’d never hear from them again,” says Sam Racer, a Russian-born attorney who has represented Balagula. “It was a nice scam until it got into the hands of the Russians. They bought Rollses and Ferraris and walked around Atlantic City with stacks of hundred-dollar bills, and suddenly the IRS realized they were getting fucked for hundreds of millions of dollars.”
What the Russians had discovered was a way to expand the scam into the biggest tax heist in U.S. history. Prior to 1982, thousands of individual gas stations in New York State were responsible for collecting state and federal taxes – amounting to as much as 28 cents a gallon – and then passing them on to the relevant authorities. Because of rampant cheating, however, state lawmakers decided that year to shift the responsibility to New York’s four hundred gasoline distributors, who had to assess the fuel before it was moved to the stations. But clever Russians like Balagula found in fact that the new tax law presented opportunities for even larger scores. They would first set up a welter of phony distributorships. One of these companies would then purchase a large shipment of gasoline and, on paper at least, move it to another distributor through a so-called daisy chain. The transactions were carried out quickly and generated a blizzard of paper. One of the dummy enterprises was designated as the “burn company,” the one that was required to pay the taxes to the IRS. Instead, the burn company sold the gas at cut-rate prices to independent retailers with a phony invoice stamped “All taxes paid.” The bootleggers pocketed the money, and the burn company – no more than a post office box and a corporate principal, usually a Russian émigré living in a rooming house on Brighton Beach Avenue – disappeared. By the time the IRS came looking for the taxes due, the revenue agents were buried under an intricate paper trail that led nowhere.
Balagula proved a master at this scheme, and he, along with many other Russian groups, began amassing enormous sums from it. Through their control of gasoline distributorships in the New York metropolitan area and elsewhere, the Russian mobsters evaded as much as $8 billion a year in state and federal taxes by 1985.
Balagula’s fraudulent fuel syndicate received a major boost from the involvement of Power Test, a midsize, $160-million-a-year gasoline company on Long Island that was itself being driven into bankruptcy by independent stations selling cheap or bootleg gas. (Indeed, by 1980 half of all unbranded gas sold on Long Island was bootlegged, destroying the livelihood of many honest businessmen who couldn’t afford to compete against cut-rate prices.) Rather than see his company fail, Power Test CEO Leo Liebowitz decided to join the bootleggers. According to court testimony and interviews, he instructed two Power Test executives, John Byrne, a district sales manager and former New York City police sergeant, and Robert Eisenberg, the company’s in-house counsel, to buy bootleg gas. Byrne and Eisenberg then set up bootlegging companies with Balagula that would sell “cheap” gas exclusively to Power Test.
The plan worked – so successfully, in fact, that Power Test soon had enough cash to begin negotiating with Texaco to purchase Getty Oil, one of the fabled Seven Sisters. (Because of antitrust problems, Texaco was being forced to sell the East Coast marketing operation of Getty, which it had acquired in 1984.) According to a Power Test insider, Liebowitz had joined the bootleggers not merely to save his company but also because of his aspirations to become a major player in the oil business. “Leo started talking to Texaco in the winter of 1983,” recalls the insider. “If he was going into receivership, he couldn’t talk to Texaco. He had to keep the company solvent. So he did deals with gasoline bootleggers. He did lots of those deals.”
In 1985, Power Test concluded the deal for Getty, and Liebowitz – triumphant atop the $1.3 billion company that adopted the lustrous Getty name – was lauded in Forbes as one of the most brilliant businessmen in America. “The sky’s the limit,” Liebowitz told Newsday. “We are the largest independent in the United States and we are just getting started!”
Six years later Getty became the first major oil corporation in recent history to be convicted of gasoline bootlegging. John Byrne and Robert Eisenberg escaped prosecution by becoming government witnesses. Two senior company executives were convicted and sentenced to jail terms, and Getty was fined $400,000. Liebowitz, to the surprise of many, was never indicted. Getty’s role in the scheme was uncovered by the Long Island Motor Fuel Task Force, a group of federal, state, and local prosecutors and investigators formed to combat gasoline bootlegging. “Gasoline excise tax evasion is no longer a local problem. It’s a national problem,” said James Rodio, a tax attorney with the U.S. Justice Department and a member of the task force. “Cheating of this magnitude has to stop,” U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Wexler chided during sentencing.
By this time, however, the money from bootlegging had spread far beyond the gasoline industry. It was being used, New York and federal officials feared, to corrupt politicians, labor unions, and law enforcement itself. Consider the revelations of Lawrence Iorizzo, a six-foot, 450-pound, self-confessed bigamist who became a government informant after he was indicted for stealing $1.1 million in gas taxes in 1984. A New York gasoline company executive who is credited with inventing the daisy chain, Iorizzo ran an enormously successful bootlegging empire in the early to mid-1980s with the help of Michael Franzese, the vicious “Yuppie Don” of the Colombo crime family and a consortium of Russian and Eastern European gangsters. In sworn testimony before the oversight subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, Iorizzo charged that one of his former partners, Martin Carey, had skimmed millions of dollars of tax money from his Long Island gas stations and illegally channeled it into the campaign treasury of his older brother, Hugh, then the governor of New York. Martin Carey escaped prosecution because he had been granted immunity by testifying in another case.
Incredibly, Iorizzo’s charges of political corruption were never investigated. In 1987, when Jeremiah McKenna, the counsel to New York’s Crime and Correction Committee, called for a hearing to probe Iorizzo’s allegations, he was forced to resign by New York governor Mario Cuomo, who had been Carey’s running mate as lieutenant governor in 1978. Cuomo complained that McKenna, a respected Republican investigator, was spreading false and malicious stories. Iorizzo had previously testified to Congress that he had made political contributions to Governor Cuomo’s 1984 campaign from some of these bootleg funds, asserting that he had done so at the “directions of people above me.”3
Though Iorizzo’s allegations about political corruption were ignored by prosecutors, his court testimony did help break up the powerful Russian-Italian bootlegging combine led by Franzese, which paved the way for Balagula to gain uncontested control of the operation. By 1985, Balagula was well on his way to becoming the undisputed king of American bootleggers: his domain was a self-contained, vertically integrated behemoth that included oceangoing tankers, seven terminals, a fleet of gasoline trucks, truck stops (including even their greasy spoon diners), and more than one hundred gas stations, all operated by fiercely loyal Soviet Jewish émigrés. Balagula even negotiated to take over oil-refining terminals in Eastern bloc countries, which would process fuel waste products known as derivatives, then sell shiploads of the toxic by-products in North America. Balagula’s headquarters in New Rochelle, New York – which ironically stood next to an FBI building – looked like a scene in a Stanley Kubrick black comedy. Russian secretaries wearing identical zebra-print dresses and fur hats worked at computer terminals while video cameras scanned the office. “The obsession with security,” says one of Balagula’s associates, “came from the paranoid Russian personality that one develops growing up in a police state.”
Flush with cash, Balagula began to run his empire like a profligate oil sheik. Joe Ezra, a former attorney for Balagula, once accompanied the Russian godfather and his retinue on an epicurean “business trip” to Europe, to broker oil deals with Marc Rich, the billionaire fugitive commodities trader. The group paid visits to Cartier shops in every airport along the way, spending thousands of dollars on “shit like little leather-bound address books that cost $300 each,” Ezra remembered. Often, they would stop in a city and take over entire whorehouses and go on food binges. “They’d go to meals in Germany with ten people, and when they finished, somebody would say, ‘I’m still hungry,’ and [Marat] would order a second meal for everybody.” Most of the food would be thrown away. “If a bill was $1,500, the tip would be $1,500. If a guy would come over and sing a song, Marat would give him a hundred-dollar bill. I remember saying to myself, “These people need intensive psychiatric help.’”
Balagula was also a compulsive gambler, and the joke in Brighton Beach was that you would know how he did at the craps tables over the weekend by the price of gas at the pump on Monday. “Marat says he’s got a photographic memory, but he don’t,” grumbled a powerful Genovese crime family figure who went to Atlantic City with Balagula after the Russian boasted that he could count cards. “We lost $20,000. I told Marat, ‘How the fuck do you remember anything?’”
Befitting his new status, Balagula bought a $1.2 million home on Long Island, to which he relocated his family from Brighton Beach. His reputation as Little Odessa’s godfather, however, was met with consternation by his new neighbors and caused his younger daughter a bit of grief in school. “I love my dad very much. My father’s my world to me,” Aksana, a sullen, curly haired, nineteen-year-old optometry student told me in a 1992 interview. “There was a lot of harassment, a lot of fights,” she recalled. Once, after a classmate called her father a gangster, “I just got very upset and I threw a book at his head. They [the school] made me see a psychologist.”
3 NBC-TV national news later reported that it was Franzese who had ordered Iorizzo and the heads of the Russian consortium to send checks for $5,000 drawn on their shell company accounts to Cuomo’s campaign. In all, $25,000 was diverted to Cuomo in this way. Confronted with this revelation, Cuomo replied that it was impossible to do due diligence on each and every political donation.
As Balagula’s wealth grew, so did the violence in Brighton Beach. At least fifteen unsolved homicides were attributed to his turf wars with rival Russian mobsters. “Marat ordered many murders. I know!” insisted an Italian mob boss. Many of the gangland-style slayings were brazen, broad-daylight shootings carried out in Brighton Beach restaurants in front of numerous witnesses. “These guys are worse than the [Italian] wiseguys,” says Ray Jermyn. “They have no hesitation at all to whack somebody. They are cowboys.”
Balagula may have employed enough wild, Uzi-wielding Russians to reign supreme in Brighton Beach, but he didn’t dare fight with the Italians. When a Mafia associate told John Gotti in 1986 about the Russian-dominated gasoline bootlegging scam, the “Dapper Don” was heard to reply over a government bug, “I gotta do it right now! Right now I gotta do it!” He wasn’t alone in coveting a share of this business: heads of four of the five New York Italian Mafia families imposed a 2-cents-per-gallon “family tax” on the Russian bootleggers, and the levy became their second largest source of revenue after drugs, worth an estimated $100 million a year. Genovese soldiers guarded the family’s take at Balagula’s terminals in Westchester, while Christopher “Christie Tick” Furnari, then the sixty-eight-year-old underboss of the Lucchese crime family and one of the most powerful mobsters in the country, got Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island.
Balagula’s closest aides had argued to keep the Italians out of the bootlegging operation. Marat had “capable guys,” said a key associate. “They weren’t afraid of fights.” But Balagula believed he could never win a war with the Italians, so he invited them in, confident he could outsmart them into accepting less than they had agreed upon. Marat “didn’t realize how insidious they were,” says the associate. “He fell for their charm. He had watched too many American movies.
“The LCN didn’t want to know the ins and outs of the gas business,” but simply wanted their cut, the source asserts. “The LCN reminded Balagula of the apparatchiks in the Soviet Union. He thought as long as he gave them something they’d be valuable allies” with their political connections and muscle. “Then all of a sudden he was at risk of being killed if he couldn’t pay to the penny.”
Whatever it cost him in lost revenue, Marat was grateful to have the Italians on his side. According to a mob source, their new relationship enabled him to forge a protective alliance with the Genovese and Lucchese families against the Colombo family’s Yuppie Don, Michael Franzese. One of Franzese’s crew, Frankie “the Bug” Sciortino, had been going around with a Gotti soldier “shaking down a bunch of Russian bootleggers,” says Jermyn. “They would just go into places in Brooklyn and make them pay $25,000 a clip for protection, or else they’d use a ball peen hammer on them. The Russians are scared to death of the Italians. They scored over half a million dollars by shaking these guys down.”
At around the same time, Franzese himself “tried to hustle Marat,” says a well-placed Genovese underworld figure. “I showed up at a restaurant, and two of Franzese’s guys was sitting with Marat. I said, ‘Who are these guys?’”
“They are not with me,” Balagula said.
“The next time I saw Michael [Franzese] and mentioned Marat, his face went white,” the Genovese gangster says with a laugh. “Christie Tick had put out the word that Marat was under his protection.”
When in 1986 the Brooklyn office of Balagula’s company Platenum Energy was riddled with Uzi submachine gunfire, killing one of Balagula’s bodyguards with eight shots in the chest and two in the head, it was the Italians who came to Balagula’s aid. According to law enforcement sources, the shooters were two Russians, Michael Vax and Vladimir Reznikov, who were disgruntled because Balagula had sold them invalid state gasoline distributorship licenses. (Balagula told me the shooting was an attempted robbery.)
A short time after the Platenum Energy incident, Reznikov, an infamous Brighton Beach hit man, stuck a gun in Balagula’s face outside the Odessa restaurant and demanded $600,000 and a partnership in his bootlegging empire. Balagula was so frightened by the assault that he suffered a heart attack but refused to go to the hospital. Instead, he persuaded his doctors to set up a makeshift intensive care unit in the bedroom of his fortress-like mansion, whose sandstone spires bristled with gunmen. “When we went to Marat’s house, I remember seeing Marat in bed hooked up to all kinds of machines,” Anthony “Gas Pipe” Casso, a Lucchese mob boss turncoat, recalled.4
On June 13, 1986, Reznikov was lured to the Odessa to parley with Balagula, who was actually in California convalescing. When Balagula didn’t appear, Reznikov strolled back across Brighton Beach Avenue and climbed into his new brown Nissan. Suddenly, Lucchese soldier Joe Testa emerged from behind a car and pumped six bullets from a .380 automatic handgun into Reznikov’s arm, leg, and hip. As the grievously wounded Russian grabbed for his own weapon, Testa fired a fatal shot to his head. “After that,” Casso said, “Marat did not have any more problems from any other Russians.”
4 Casso, speaking behind a black veil, testified to a Senate panel probing the Russian mob in 1996.
However greatly the Russians may have feared the Italian Mafia, they had little regard for American law enforcement, manipulating the FBI as easily as they had the apparats in the Soviet Union. “As soon as they knew they were in trouble and law enforcement was breathing down their necks,” says Ray Jermyn, “they ran to the counterintelligence guys [the FBI and CIA] and tried to sell what they considered to be secrets and stuff.” In the years before glasnost, the strategy often worked, for the FBI routinely placed advertisements in New York’s Russian-language newspapers, offering cash rewards for information about KGB spies. When a Russian gangster became an intelligence asset, the feds would often shelve pending investigations targeting him. “We never stopped doing stuff because we were requested to,” Jermyn says. “But a lot of times the agents would change their focus and slow down. … You put it on the back burner, and then it kind of goes away.”
Jermyn pleaded with the FBI to lend him Russian-speaking agents to monitor the voluminous, court-authorized wiretaps of Russian bootleggers. “We were always asking for agents to give us assistance to do translations,” he recalls. “They wouldn’t help. They said they were too busy, they are working at the [Soviet] embassy” in New York.
“Then I got a phone call from a woman who said she was a deputy counsel in the CIA. I thought somebody was pulling my leg. She gave a callback number, and, sure enough, she worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. She was trying to bring to our attention that there was this guy who was a driver for Marat who had been a Russian submarine captain. She said that he had performed many valuable services for the agency and that he was still cooperating. And that’s when the bureau really first started to make inquiries [about our investigation].” When the court-authorized wiretaps revealed that Balagula and his comrades were major players in the bootlegging business, the bureau suddenly “gave us an agent full-time who had a Russian background and who had counterintelligence training,” Jermyn explained.
The intelligence community’s interest in Balagula was undoubtedly heightened by his many friendships with KGB spies, corrupt Third World despots, and international terrorists. Exploiting his connections within the Russian criminal diaspora, Balagula had begun forming criminal networks with outposts in Russia, Europe, and Asia. In a typical transaction that exploited this international reach, his henchmen would buy automatic weapons in Florida, move them up the East Coast to New York, and ship them to the U.S.S.R., where firearms of this sort were extremely difficult to come by.
But these were relatively small ventures for Balagula. From Brighton Beach, he and his cronies virtually ran the small, diamond-rich West African nation of Sierra Leone, whose president, Joseph Momoh, allowed the Russian mobsters to set up a global smuggling and money laundering operation there. Diamonds smuggled out of Sierra Leone were transported to Thailand, where they were swapped for heroin, which was then distributed in Europe by Balagula’s close friend Efim Laskin, who had been deported by the United States as an undesirable in 1986, and who had been arrested for illegally importing weapons and explosives to the Red Brigades in Milan.5 The Russians even brought Genovese crime family members to Sierra Leone, where, among other activities, they plundered diamond mines with the help of corrupt tribal chieftains. The Italian gangsters, who helped bankroll Momoh’s 1985 presidential campaign, became so prevalent in Freetown that when he was sworn in, a contingent of Genovese goodfellas stood proudly on the dais next to Balagula under a fierce tropical sun.
Balagula’s main contact in Sierra Leone was Shabtai Kalmanovitch, a charming, tanned Russian-Israeli entrepreneur. The two hatched numerous deals together, including one to import gasoline to Sierra Leone, which was brokered through the Spanish office of Marc Rich by Rabbi Ronald Greenwald, and another to import whiskey; the pair even had a contract to print Sierra Leone’s paper currency at a plant in Great Britain. Kalmanovitch also handled President Momoh’s personal security. In 1986, his Israeli-trained palace guard crushed an attempted coup; according to one account, Kalmanovitch pulled Momoh out of his bed just before rebels sprayed it with machine gunfire. As a reward, Kalmanovitch was granted major fishing and mining concessions and was allowed to run the nation’s largest bus company. He was also an operative for Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency. Kalmanovitch’s Freetown office was a prized listening post in a city with a large, prosperous Afro-Lebanese Shi’ite Muslim community in close contact with Lebanon’s then warring Shi’ite militias. It was only later that Mossad discovered that Kalmanovitch was not as valuable an asset as it had supposed: in 1988 he was arrested in Tel Aviv and charged with being a KGB spy. Yitzhak Rabin, then defense minister, said he was “almost certain” that the Soviets had passed on information obtained from Kalmanovitch to Syria and other Arab countries hostile to Israel. Wolf Blitzer, at the time a correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, reported speculation that sensitive material stolen by Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard was passed on to the KGB by Kalmanovitch.6
It was the peripatetic Rabbi Greenwald who introduced Kalmanovitch and Balagula to moneymaking opportunities in Africa. In May 1980, the rabbi had been asked by Lucas Mangope, the president of Bophuthatswana, one of the so-called independent black homelands inside South Africa during apartheid, to be its economic adviser with the rank of ambassador in New York and Washington.
“But because there is a strong black opinion here and a strong liberal opinion that the black homelands are just an extension of apartheid,” Greenwald said, “I told Mangope that there was only so much I could do for him in the U.S. and he would be more successful dealing with Israel. Israel is closer, Israel doesn’t have political restrictions with South Africa like America has. I suggested they hire Shab-tai,” who was a close friend and business associate.
Within several years after being introduced to Mangope, Kalmanovitch was a millionaire. Through a newly formed company called Liat, he landed lucrative contracts to build a soccer stadium, and imported Israeli specialists to train the Bantustan’s police and security service. In February 1987, when rebel armies revolted and placed Mangope in the soccer stadium Kalmanovitch had built, the Russian took his considerable wealth and relocated to Sierra Leone, using Greenwald’s contacts in the government.
Eventually, the Russian and Italian gangsters were to lose more than $3 million in deals with Kalmanovitch. The Russian mobsters became so furious with Kalmanovitch that they threatened to kill him, said the Genovese source, who mediated peace talks between Kalmanovitch and Balagula. “The Russian mobsters wanted their money,” he said. “Marat said, ‘Don’t kill him, you can attract more flies with honey than vinegar.”
In order to pay back his business losses, Kalmanovitch entered into an intricate scheme with Russian and Italian gangsters to defraud Merrill Lynch, according to several of the participants. These sources say that the Russian mobsters bribed a Merrill Lynch employee to steal unused company checks worth more than $27 million by illegally accessing the company’s computer. The employee also stole valid signature stamps. The checks and stamps were then sent by courier to Kalmanovitch.
According to Interpol reports and sources involved in the scheme, on April 27, 1987, Kalmanovitch, Greenwald, and an associate left Kalmanovitch’s lavish home in Cannes and drove to Monte Carlo where the associate opened up a business account at Republic National Bank for a paper company called Clouns International. He then desposited a number of fraudulently endorsed checks worth some $2.7 million. When the checks cleared three days later, Greenwald and the associate returned to the bank, where Greenwald was given $400,000 in cash from the Merrill Lynch funds. Greenwald carried the money in a large black bag via Germany to Switzerland, where he allegedly turned the cash over to Balagula’s representatives in a Zurich hotel men’s room. According to the scheme’s participants, Greenwald was paid $50,000, an allegation the rabbi flatly denies.
On May 22 of that year, Scotland Yard arrested Kalmanovitch at the Sheraton Park Tower Hotel in London at 3:00 A.M. It found three rubber stamps used to endorse the checks in Kalmanovitch’s room. Earlier that day, Kalmanovitch had had lunch with Uri Lubrani, the head of Israeli intelligence in south Lebanon, according to a source who attended the meeting.
While Kalmanovitch was being led away in handcuffs, Greenwald, who was also staying at the Sheraton, threw his bags together and, without paying his bill, caught a Concorde flight back to America, according to the FBI and an associate of Greenwald. Greenwald returned home just in time for the Friday night Sabbath meal.
Kalmanovitch was extradited to America to stand trial on fraud charges. (The FBI questioned Greenwald three times, but didn’t arrest him.) Greenwald rounded up a select group of prominent Americans and Israelis to provide character references, including New York Republican congressman Benjamin Gilman, who wrote that “Mr. Kalmanovitch enjoys a wide reputation for his integrity and business acumen.” He obtained bail and flew to Israel, where he was immediately arrested for being a Soviet spy.
5 In 1990, Laskin accepted a large advance on a heroin deal from two Italian organized crime drug traffickers, Renato Pantanella and Francesco Guarnacchia, says a secret FBI report. He reneged on the deal. In May 1991, Laskin was attacked in the parking garage outside his Munich apartment. One attacker shoved a gun to his head, and squeezed the trigger. It jammed. The assailant then took out a knife and stabbed him. As Laskin struggled, another assassin stepped out of the shadows and stabbed him eleven more times. “He gutted him like a pig,” said a source.
6 In 1999, U.S. government sources leaked to Newsday and The New Yorker that in exchange for Soviet Jewish immigrants, Pollard gave the Soviets, among other things, a computer file that allowed them to identify American foreign agents in the field.
In 1986, at the height of his power, Marat made a reckless error. Robert Fasano, a small-time hood who traveled around Brooklyn in an ostentatious white Excalibur, phoned Balagula with an interesting proposition. Fasano had obtained the numbers of two dozen Merrill Lynch credit cards with six-figure authorization codes. Fasano also had sheets of white plastic and a machine that could emboss the stolen numbers on dummy cards. All he needed to use the material was some cooperative merchants who would agree to accept the phony cards to charge merchandise. The merchants would get a cut, though the goods, of course, would never leave the stores. At a meeting with Fasano, Balagula agreed to introduce him to Russian merchants in New York and Philadelphia. He then instructed two of his henchmen to accompany Fasano to the stores.
The scam worked as planned, and the men took in more than $750,000, stopping only long enough in their shopping spree to feast at Russian restaurants. But Fasano was arrested by the Secret Service not long afterward, and agreed to wear a wire in meetings with Balagula. In those discussions Balagula not only implicated himself in the “white plastic” fraud, but also commiserated with Fasano about their sexual problems; both men, it seems, had trouble achieving erections. Fasano had found a doctor in New York who prescribed a plastic hand pump for genital stimulation, and recommended it to Balagula. The prosecution later played the tape at Balagula’s trial in Philadelphia to prove the men had more than a casual relationship.
“Go out and get a ten-pound bag of shit and try to put it in a five-pound bag and that’s Fasano,” said Joe Ezra, one of the five defense attorneys Balagula brought to Philadelphia at a cost of nearly $1 million. Lead attorney Barry Slotnick, renowned for his successful defense of Bernhard Goetz, was dismissed on the first day of the trial by the judge because of a conflict of interest: his firm already represented one of Balagula’s co-defendants, Benjamin Nayfeld. Slotnick, who received a $125,000 fee, camped out at the Hershey Hotel, where he debriefed Balagula’s lawyers at the end of each session and advised them on their strategy for the following day.
Nevertheless, Balagula was convicted of credit card fraud, and there is even now a great deal of rancor among Balagula’s defense team. Some charge that Slotnick’s backseat lawyering hurt the case; others claim that one defense lawyer received a large bribe to fix the trial. Marat himself believed that the money was being used to grease the system. After his conviction, Balagula was taken by Rabbi Greenwald to attorney Alan Dershowitz to discuss an appeal. Instead, Balagula asked the esteemed lawyer to bribe the appeals judge. An indignant Dershowitz refused. Just three days before his November 1986 sentencing, the mobster fled to Antwerp with his mistress, former model Natalia Shevchencko.
Secret Service agent Harold Bibb admits he feared that Balagula “would turn rabbit” after the government rejected the crime boss’s offer to ferret out Soviet spies in Brighton Beach in return for setting aside his conviction. In addition to protecting the president and foreign dignitaries, the Secret Service investigates credit card fraud and counterfeiting. Ironically, Bibb, a born-again Christian from Tennessee, had once been assigned to the security detail protecting Israeli cabinet minister Moshe Dayan during U.S. fundraising trips on behalf of Soviet Jews in the early 1970s. He had now been given the task of hunting down the most dangerous of those Soviet Jews, the godfather of the Russian mob.
In February 1987, four months after Balagula left the country, Bibb tracked him down in Johannesburg, where he was living with his mistress and her daughter, who had enrolled at a local university. “You have to understand how to chase a fugitive,” Bibb explained in his spartan Secret Service office in Memphis. “You either find the hole that they’re living in, you find the people that they are talking to, or you find out how they are getting funded.” In this case, Bibb found Balagula by tracing his girlfriend’s credit card receipts. He also discovered that Balagula was receiving monthly deliveries of $50,000 in cash from his New York underlings. The money, stuffed in a worn black leather bag, was hand-delivered to Balagula’s Johannesburg apartment by Balagula’s driver, the ex-submarine commander.
Bibb had intended to tail the driver to Balagula’s hideout. But the Secret Service was too cheap to pay for his plane ticket, the agent said. So he contacted the security officer at the American embassy in Pretoria, who in turn alerted the police, supplying them with photos of the driver and Balagula. However, Bibb suspects that the constable who was dispatched to make the arrest let Balagula go free when the Russian handed him the monthly payment. Again with his mistress in tow, Balagula next fled to Sierra Leone, where he bought Sierra Leonean and Paraguayan diplomatic passports for $20,000.
Over the next three years of Balagula’s exile, he jetted to thirty-six separate countries, including Switzerland, Paraguay, and Hong Kong, where he worked “in the jewelry business,” according to the Genovese family figure close to him. Bibb even heard that he was once spotted playing craps in Atlantic City. Finally, on February 27, 1989, an especially alert border guard at the Frankfurt airport recognized the Russian godfather from his picture on the “Red Notice,” the wanted poster distributed by Interpol. After being apprehended, Balagula claimed, “It’s very difficult to be a fugitive. I can’t see my family. In the last year I started to work in the open. I wanted to get caught.”
Balagula’s close association with Efim Laskin earned him detention in a maximum security “terrorist jail” in Germany. (One of his cell mates was Mohammed Ali Hamadei, the Lebanese who hijacked TWA Flight 847, during which a Navy SEAL was brutally murdered.) The New York Times reported that, during his extradition hearing, rumors circulated about a large bribe that was to be paid to free the Brighton Beach mobster. The Times also noted that, according to informants cited in U.S. intelligence reports, Balagula may have had connections to Soviet intelligence – a charge Balagula denied in a sworn statement to the FBI.
Meanwhile, in New York, Barry Slotnick met with U.S. Attorney Charles Rose, hoping to broker a deal that would keep Balagula out of an American jail. Balagula proposed setting up a company in Europe to entrap traders in stolen American technology. “Marat also tried to present himself as a secret agent to help track down KGB spies in Little Odessa and Eastern Europe,” says one of Balagula’s attorneys Sam Racer. “He claimed Little Odessa was teeming with KGB and that they were using the gas stations as a front.”
In return for his cooperation, said Charles Rose, Balagula “obviously wanted the authority to travel, which was important to him. We had FBI agents who were familiar with foreign counterintelligence stuff talk to him. It was all very cloak-and-daggerish. The theory was that he would be so valuable to us that we would not want him to be in jail. … We never really paid much attention, and said we wanted to prosecute the guy.”
In December 1989, federal marshals wearing flak jackets escorted Balagula aboard a C-5A military transport bound for New York, where he was placed in the tomblike Metropolitan Correctional Center to await sentencing for his four-year-old conviction on credit card fraud. “He called me from MCC crying, ‘Why am I in solitary?’” recalls Sam Racer. According to Racer, a contact in the Bureau of Prisons told Slotnick that “a group of terrorists from Europe was in New York to break Balagula out.”
His rescuers never appeared, however, and Balagula received an eight-year sentence for the credit card fraud. In November 1992, he was sentenced to an additional ten years for evading federal taxes on the sale of four million gallons of gasoline. “This was supposed to be a haven for you,” declared U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Wexler. “It turned out to be a hell for us.”
Balagula was domiciled in Lewisburg federal penitentiary, situated on one thousand acres of rolling Pennsylvania farmland. The shady, tree-lined blacktop leading to the prison from the highway looks like the entrance to an elite country club. The maximum security prison, however, is a vast stone fortress, with thirty-foot-high walls and eight gun turrets bristling with automatic weapons. Balagula shared a dormitory room with thirty-six dope dealers, rapists, and murderers. He was one of only a handful of inmates at Lewisburg convicted of a white-collar crime, and he was also the only mob boss allegedly running “family” business from the facility.
I had always heard Balagula described as a man of King Kong-like proportions. But when prison guards ushered him into a smoky ground-floor visiting room, dressed in an orange jumpsuit and bound in manacles and chains, he looked haggard. He sat down heavily, a thick chain wrapped snugly around his soft paunch, and lit a Marlboro with yellow-stained fingers.
It was his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, and Alexandra, his tall, elegant blond wife, was in another waiting room. She was in a foul mood. Prison authorities had just told her that Balagula had been receiving visits from his mistress, Natalia Shevchencko. “It was hell” when his wife found out, Balagula hissed.
Balagula was spending his days working as a prison janitor, practicing his English, reading Russian detective novels and academic books on economics. “They claim I made $25 million dollars per day bootlegging. It’s crazy! I got nothing. What have I got? The government took my apartment in Manhattan, my house on Long Island, $300,000 in cash. They said, ‘If you don’t cooperate you’ll go to jail for twenty years.’ The prosecutors wrote a letter to the judge that I’m a Mafia big shot so they put me here.”
“They want me to tell them about the Mafia, about gasoline [bootlegging], about hits,” Balagula told me, glowering. “Forget it. All these charges are bullshit! All my life I like to help people. Just because a lot of people come to me for advice, everybody thinks I’m a boss. I came to America to find work, support myself, and create a future for my children.”
Balagula, who is eligible for parole in March 2003, has not only refused to give the authorities any information about the Russian mob’s activities in America, but denies that he ever heard of such an enterprise. “There is no such thing as the Russian Mafiya. Two or three friends hang out together. That’s a Mafiya?”
One after another, a parade of stretch limousines pulled up in front of an unremarkable two-story building squatting on the corner of a blighted stretch of Coney Island Avenue. Out of each stepped a massive Russian in a tuxedo, more often than not accompanied by a slender blonde in a low-cut gold lamé evening gown. As they entered the etched brown metal doors, they were ushered into another world, a world that resembled nothing so much as the set of a B movie made six thousand miles away.
Black-and-brown imported Italian marble covered the floor of the foyer where a hand-painted mural of St. Petersburg’s skyline led arriving guests into a cavernous nightclub and to tables covered with rose-colored tablecloths laden with slabs of sable, skewers of beef, and ice-cold bottles of Stolys. As multicolored lasers crisscrossed the room, Joseph Kobzon, a renowned Russian pop star, crooned Top 40 tunes from the motherland and, for the honored guests that evening, Sinatra ballads.
This was Rasputin, the Winter Palace of Brooklyn.
Off to the side stood two barrel-chested men, beaming, almost giddy. For the Zilber brothers, Vladimir, thirty-two, and Alex, thirty-four, everything had led up to this June 1992 gala opening. They had arrived in Brooklyn as penniless Jewish refugees from Odessa thirteen years earlier. Their father was a foreman in a New Jersey pillow factory, their mother a seamstress there. The boys, however, had quickly realized that the honest, hardworking immigrant was a chump game; they had made more than their parents ever dreamed possible from gasoline bootlegging, money laundering, and casinos and aluminum factories in the former Soviet Union. The Zilber brothers – Vladimir as informal head of U.S. operations, Alex as their Russian liaison – had become dons in the Brighton Beach mob; this was their Russian cotillion.
When the Zilbers took their place at the head table – where a row of dark-suited Italian-Americans, all members of the Genovese crime family, peered across nearly empty vodka bottles at an equal number of hard-faced Russians – it symbolized a new era in organized crime in America. The Russians had always loved films about the American Mafia and took great pains to emulate their predecessors’ sense of sartorial style. But on this night, the two groups had more in common than a taste for heavy gold chains and open collars. The Russians had finally become powerful enough to sit at the same table with the Italians. No longer semicomic Godfather pretenders, the Russians were now arguably just as ruthless and, by many accounts, considerably wealthier than their more long-established counterparts.
The Italians were not entirely flattered by the gaudy imitation; they had warned their Russian colleagues against indulging in glitzy nightclubs that might attract the attention of the FBI and the media. (Indeed, in November 1994, the New York Times featured Rasputin in its Living Section.) Not long after Rasputin’s grand opening, investigators examined its books. The ledgers showed the restaurant had been renovated for $800,000, but according to one Genovese crime family figure, the men’s bathroom alone cost half a million dollars. In fact, more than $4 million had been spent on upgrading Rasputin. “No legit guy is gonna invest that kind of money in a restaurant,” said the Genovese source. “The Zilbers wanted a place to sit with a big cigar, and then fuck the broads that come in there.
“The restaurant is gonna be their downfall.”
The Genoveses had good reason to be concerned about the Zilber brothers’ ostentatious lifestyle. They had staked Vladimir Zilber’s gasoline bootlegging operation in exchange for a percentage of the tens of millions of dollars he made evading state and federal excise taxes. But he had gotten reckless, shaking down a team of FBI/IRS undercover agents posing as gasoline distributors in Ewing Township, New Jersey, and then, in February 1992, allegedly ordering the torching of the undercover business when they refused to pay a “mob tax.”
On November 20, 1992, Vladimir was summoned to a meeting in Manhattan with Genovese crime family figures, who accused him of jeopardizing the business. A huge man with a trip-wire personality, Zilber was not cowed. “If I go down, you go, too,” Zilber told the Italians. “I’m not going to prison.”
“Zilber had big balls,” said the Genovese associate. “Unfortunately, he used them for brains.”
Zilber’s sour-tempered performance only stoked the Italians’ fears. If he talked, he could implicate, among others, Daniel Pagano, a forty-two-year-old Genovese capo who not only got a penny out of every 27 cents in gasoline taxes that the Russians stole, but was also involved in the record industry, loan sharking, and gambling. (An additional penny went to Gambino capo Anthony “Fat Tony” Morelli, who delivered a weekly cut to Gambino boss John Gotti at the Bergin Hunt and Fish Social Club. The cash reeked of gasoline.) Pagano was mob royalty. His late father, Joseph, a convicted narcotics trafficker, had been fingered by Mafia snitch Joseph Valachi as a hit man for the Genovese crime family in the 1950s.
After the acrimonious Manhattan discussions, Zilber was supposed to go to a sit-down with representatives of Pagano in Brooklyn, says a well-placed Russian mob source. According to the Genovese figure, however, on the day of the meeting, Zilber was actually heading to Brooklyn to work out the details of a new gasoline scam, which he was concealing from Pagano and Morelli. Whatever version was true, this much is known: although he often traveled with four Genovese bodyguards, Zilber was alone when he steered his father-in-law’s battered 1989 Ford Taurus south toward the FDR Drive off-ramp onto the Brooklyn Bridge during rush hour. As he approached the ramp, a car braked in front of him. Another car with four Russians pulled up alongside. A shotgun blast hit Zilber in the side of the head, blowing away his optic nerve and filling his brain with bullet fragments. If his window had been open, doctors say, Zilber would have been killed.
After the shooting, Fat Tony Morelli materialized next to Zilber’s bed in Bellevue Hospital’s intensive care unit. Morelli whispered something to the wounded Russian, and Zilber subsequently refused to talk to the police, although sources say he had recognized the triggerman. Vladimir did rant to the staff that he had been the victim of a mob hit, although the police had initially told the doctors that he was the victim of road rage. His physician noted in his medical chart that Zilber was a “delusional, paranoid schizophrenic.” Knowing better, Alex Zilber surrounded his brother’s room with round-the-clock bodyguards.
The police found the shooters’ car abandoned at South Street Seaport, a popular tourist attraction in lower Manhattan. Inside was the shotgun used to shoot Zilber, as well as a rifle, a baseball cap, and a hair band of the type that Russian gangsters fancy for their flamboyant ponytails.
Shortly after the incident, the real reason for Zilber’s hit became clear. Through informants in the New York Police Department, the Italian Mafia had learned that federal indictments were being prepared. Zilber would be a serious liability when they were issued. “He’s lucky his head wasn’t blown off,” said the Genovese figure. “Vladimir was a loose cannon. Shutting him up was an act of survival.” Indeed, the hit could not have taken place, Russian and Italian underworld sources, as well as federal authorities, agree, if Pagano and Morelli had not sanctioned it. “The shooters would need somebody’s permission on the Italian side to kill the primary goose that was laying the golden egg,” says a federal prosecutor.
The attempt on Zilber’s life prodded the authorities into action. On November 22, 1992, two days after the ambush on the FDR, an army of federal agents, under the code name Operation Red Daisy, fanned out across New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Florida, with more than two hundred search warrants, confiscating evidence and freezing assets of the alleged gasoline bootleggers. After years of neglect, law enforcement had finally begun to marshal its forces and pay serious attention to the Russian threat. Operation Red Daisy would be by far its most successful foray against the Russian mob to date.
But in general, state and federal law enforcement agencies were loath to go after Russian mobsters, instead devoting their energies to bagging Italian wiseguys, a traditional route to promotion. And because the Russian mob was mostly Jewish, it was a political hot potato, especially in the New York area, where the vast majority of refugees were being resettled by Jewish welfare agencies. As for the New York City Police Department, it had almost no Russian-speaking cops, and even fewer reliable informants in the Russian émigré community. For years, the NYPD’s intelligence unit couldn’t find a single detective to monitor the Russian mob, because many cops were scared. “The Russians are just as crazy as the Jamaican drug gangs,” a Ukrainian-speaking detective, who declined to work the Russian beat, told me in 1992. “They won’t hesitate to go after a cop’s family.”
The NYPD was apparently unaware of the existence of the Russian mob until December 7, 1982, when detectives were summoned to a luxury apartment building on Manhattan’s East 49th Street, near the United Nations. There they found a middle-aged man sprawled across a bed on his back – his arms outstretched, feet dangling over the edge and touching the floor, his eyes wide open. At first glance, lead detective Barry Drubin, a gruff police veteran, believed the deceased was a heart attack victim. The body lay in peaceful repose. There were no signs of a forced entry or struggle, and the dead man was still carrying his wallet and wearing an expensive gold watch and a black leather jacket. When Drubin looked more closely, however, he noticed that the vessels in one eye had burst, filling it with a dollop of blood. Drubin gently raised the man’s head and saw that blood had coagulated in the back of the man’s hair. There was no blood on the bed. The victim had been shot once, execution-style, at close range above the right ear at the hairline with a .25 caliber handgun. “We traced the bullet hole from the back of the head to the entry wound,” Drubin says. “It was a professional hit.”
Drubin’s men searched the three-room apartment, which was decorated with expensive artwork. Nothing appeared to be disturbed or missing and they turned up no shell casings or suspicious fingerprints. A large, open attaché case in the living room was empty, save for a jeweler’s loupe, a magnifying lens used to examine gems. The briefcase was subsequently checked for trace elements of drugs, but the tests were negative. Inside a credenza in the den, the detectives found $50,000 wrapped in cellophane, tucked away next to a VCR and an extensive video porn collection. A small amount of recreational hash was nearby.
The victim was soon identified as forty-nine-year-old Yuri Brokhin – the man with whom Monya Elson had first teamed up with when he arrived in Brighton Beach, and with whom he had enjoyed a great deal of success robbing and smuggling precious gems. But as Drubin soon discovered, Brokhin had been leading a paradoxical double life. Most of the world knew him as a prominent Russian Jewish dissident, author, and filmmaker, who had immigrated to the United States with his wife, Tanya, on November 16, 1972. He lived in an expensive apartment on Manhattan’s East Side, bought a small country home on Long Island, and frequently treated friends to dinner at Elaine’s, a famous hangout for the city’s literati, and evenings at jazz clubs in Greenwich Village. He also owned a black stretch limousine and a beat-up Mercedes-Benz that he spent thousands of dollars to refurbish.
While Tanya took a job at Radio Liberty, earning $20,000 a year, Brokhin worked to maintain his reputation as a writer of import. He had published two books, which received mixed to poor reviews, including The Big Red Machine, an exposé of corruption inside the Soviet sports establishment, which was published by Random House in 1978.
Brokhin’s anti-Soviet diatribes soon brought him to the attention of New York Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Brokhin was introduced to Moynihan by his chief of staff on the Intelligence Committee, Eric Breindel, an avid cold warrior. Brokhin supplied the committee with information about alleged Soviet agents who had penetrated America posing as Jewish refugees. Although Moynihan has no memory of having met Brokhin, Brokhin and Breindel developed an enthusiastic friendship, according to David Luchins, the senator’s longtime liaison to the Orthodox Jewish community.
When Brokhin was discovered murdered, Breindel leaked a story to the press that he had been killed by the KGB because he was at work on a devastating exposé of the personal life of Yuri Andropov, the newly installed Soviet general secretary, and onetime KGB head. Breindel told Moynihan that Brokhin’s execution was reminiscent of the highly publicized assassination of a Bulgarian dissident and anti-Soviet writer in England, who was stabbed with the poisonous tip of an umbrella by communist agents and later succumbed to the lethal toxin.7 “After he put a bee in Moynihan’s bonnet,” as Luchins recalls, Breindel encouraged the senator to publicly call on the FBI to probe whether the Russian émigré had been slain by a foreign intelligence agency. The bureau dutifully complied, assigning William Moschella, one of its counterintelligence agents, to help Drubin unravel Brokhin’s homicide. “Moschella was not one of their big brain trusts, I can tell you that,” observed Drubin dryly. The NYPD’s Peter Grinenko, a Ukrainian-and Russian-speaking cop, was transferred from an auto theft detail to work with Moschella.
Brokhin’s body had been discovered at 4:15 P.M. by his girlfriend, Tina Ragsdale, who called 911 after returning home from her photo editor’s job. (Brokhin’s wife, Tanya, was found drowned in the bathtub in their apartment a year earlier. Brokhin had recently taken out a $150,000 insurance policy on her life. Police ruled the death an accident. He collected double indemnity.) Ragsdale, a waif of a girl from Little Rock, immediately aroused Drubin’s suspicion. “She was in her twenties and he was forty-nine,” recalled Drubin, a circumspect man with a careful memory. “You had to really wonder what’s wrong with this love-starved, overly romantic young woman. He wasn’t a particularly good-looking guy. In fact, he was quite ugly. He was hard and severe-looking. And she was relatively attractive.”
“Yuri and I were interested in the same things: photography and art,” Ragsdale insisted when interviewed fifteen years after her boyfriend’s homicide. “That was our common meeting ground.”
She had given Drubin precisely the same explanation, but he didn’t buy it. “We got bad vibes from Tina. We felt she was holding back. We found the cash, hashish by the television, and the pornography tapes, and we didn’t feel she was giving us information.”
After hours of relentless grilling, a tearful Ragsdale finally surrendered what the police wanted: the names of Brokhin’s closest friends – people to whom she also had grown close and may have had reason to protect. Although Ragsdale had given him a long list of names, Drubin didn’t recognize any of them. “There was nobody to tell you who these people were like there would be with the Italians,” he explained.
At this point in time, Russian crime was recognized by the authorities as a growing problem, but not an organized one, and Russian criminals, when they were caught in petty food stamp scams or even quite large Medicare frauds, were treated as isolated cases. However, the NYPD had become sufficiently concerned with the rise in Russian arrests to have recently authorized setting up a two-man intelligence unit under detective Joel Campanella to begin monitoring the phenomenon. Though he had only just begun his investigation, Campanella was at the time the closest thing to an expert on the subject, and when Drubin eventually turned to him for assistance, he helped confirm that Ragsdale’s list of names was a menacing collection of Russian underworld figures.
Drubin hauled in dozens of these men for interrogation, all of whom were coarse, Gulag-hardened thugs whom Ragsdale knew from smoke-filled parties, high-stakes card games, and vodka-laced nights in Russian cabarets. One suspect sat across Drubin’s desk in the squad room, contemptuously chomping on a .22 caliber bullet. “He would remove the bullet from the shell and chew on it. I don’t know what kind of lead poisoning he has. And when I asked him if he had any more of those, he showed me a whole box of bullets. And my next question was the same question that you would have asked. Do you have a gun that goes with the bullets? The next thing on the desk is the gun.”
Drubin quickly realized that the Russians held him in very low regard. “I had one suspect look me in the face and say, ‘I did time on the Arctic Circle. Do you think anything you’re going to do is going to bother me?’”
Even the godfather of the Brighton Beach mob at the time, Evsei Agron, was brought in for questioning after one informant claimed that it had been he who had killed Brokhin. Agron, however, had an alibi: he had been playing cards with his friends. “They all had alibis,” Drubin complained. Before Agron exited the station house, Drubin did manage to relieve him of his favorite, ever-present electric cattle prod.
Although Drubin was having little success in identifying the killer, he and Campanella were unearthing a huge amount of information about the workings of the Russian mob, and Campanella quickly set up a database in his unit. One of Campanella’s most shocking discoveries was that many of his fellow cops in Brighton Beach were on the Organizatsiya’s payroll. Employed as bodyguards, bagmen, and chauffeurs for Russian godfathers, the dirty cops made $150 a night or more for special jobs. “Everyone knew, including Internal Affairs, that cops in cheap suits who looked like gangsters worked the door as bouncers and sat in the front tables at Russian mob joints,” said criminal defense attorney James DiPietro. In the late 1980s, Campanella wrote to Internal Affairs about the problem; his complaint was ignored.
7 Shortly after Brokhin’s death, Breindel faced his own investigation. On May 23, 1983, the Senate aide was arrested at a Holiday Inn in northeast Washington after purchasing five bags of heroin from an undercover cop for $150. Breindel, who had top security clearance, was ignominiously fired by Moynihan. The senator said in a statement to the press that he had no reason to believe that there had been any “intelligence losses attributed to Breindel,” somberly adding that “this is a matter for further and thorough investigation.” Breindel’s career miraculously recovered and thrived. The onetime Harvard Crimson editor went on to become the editorial page editor of the New York Post and vice president of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation before he died in 1998.
Unaddressed, the problem persisted. In the summer of 1994, New York State tax investigator Roger Berger, acting on a tip from an underworld source, likewise contacted Internal Affairs, telling them about police working at the Rasputin and Metropole nightclubs, as well as traffic cops participating in phony-car-accident scams with the Russians. Instead of investigating the complaint, however, IA tried to browbeat him into revealing his sources. “I said, ‘First of all, these cops are conduits of information between the precinct and the Russians,’” Berger recalls. “And that would be just perfect, to turn my informant over to you so he can get killed.’”
“Russians [in Brighton Beach] still don’t trust the local cops because they see them work as bouncers at the local mobbed-up restaurants,” says Gregory Stasiuk, an investigator with the New York State Organized Crime Task Force. “The Task Force had me go out and do interviews with Russians rather than the NYPD. The Russian community thinks the cops are on the take. The 60th and 61st precincts are very corrupt. We can’t even do surveillance because the local cops make us in our vans. Every move we make is reported to the Russian gangsters by the dirty cops.”
Barry Drubin was also warned “to be careful about whom I talked to and what I said” – in Brighton Beach – “because a lot of cops were on the mob’s payroll. Detectives were working as bodyguards, they were making collections, they were doing a little strong-arm shit, and I said forget about this stuff here. I’m not going near this with a ten-foot pole. These cops weren’t going to lead me to the guys that shot Yuri Brokhin.”
The Moynihan-inspired investigation by the Moschella and Grinenko team wasn’t much help in Brighton Beach either. Drubin considered them buffoons, and recalled one incident in which he crashed a bar mitzvah with them just to show their faces and apply a little pressure to the mobsters. “It was at the Sadko restaurant,” Drubin recalled, an infamous mob joint. “Grinenko and Moschella got shit-faced, and Peter [Grinenko] starts dancing with all the Russian women, even breaking in on the husbands.” The situation was only exacerbated by the deep animosity between Grinenko and Drubin, which stemmed from Grinenko’s supposed anti-Semitism. Grinenko allegedly told Drubin that he believed Jews were “genetically inferior.” When Drubin countered that Grinenko was an anti-Semitic Cossack, the cops nearly came to blows.8
Despite the numerous obstacles, Drubin and Campanella were making some progress, at least in uncovering the truth about Yuri Brokhin. Beneath the facade of a Soviet critic and intellectual lay a mobbed-up international drug dealer, jewel thief, and confidence man. Brokhin was constantly in debt, and the paltry income from his writing career, which could amount to no more than a few thousand dollars a year, certainly did not account for his rather affluent lifestyle, which included frequent trips to Atlantic City gaming tables and the Aqueduct Race Track. A compulsive gambler, he also spent many evenings playing cards with his friends in the Russian mob – godfathers, future godfathers, hit men, and extortionists, who gathered to gamble in a fortified Brooklyn “social club.” “He made a lot and he played a lot,” said Ivan, a Russian mobster whose friendship with Brokhin dated back to Moscow, where Brokhin specialized in robbing copulating couples in public parks. “Yuri was very close with the godfather Evsei Agron,” explained Ivan, who remembered how happy Brokhin was when Agron invited him to Canada to attend the godfather’s younger sister’s wedding.
But there was an even more duplicitous side to Brokhin, Drubin later learned from federal counterintelligence agents. Brokhin and his criminal cronies took frequent trips to Bulgaria. Its spas were a favorite hangout for Brighton Beach gangsters, KGB agents, and Soviet black marketeers. The spas were cheap, conducive to conducting business, and within close proximity to the U.S.S.R. A great deal of contraband, such as narcotics, flowed in and out of the Soviet Union through Bulgaria, as did intelligence information. Sofia was also a principal money laundering center for the KGB and the Brighton Beach mob. Brokhin was frequently observed by U.S. intelligence agents slipping in and out of the Soviet Union from Bulgaria and then returning to New York. U.S. counterintelligence officials believed that he was not only trading in contraband, but supplying the KGB with information about his new homeland. If he was a Soviet mole, as these officials believed, he could easily use his status as a dissident intellectual and friend of the Senate Intelligence Committee to provide valuable information he may have gleaned through his relationship with Breindel.
But Brokhin was killed, not because of Cold War intrigue, but because of a dispute among thieves. On the morning of Brokhin’s homicide, he had had breakfast at the National restaurant in Brighton Beach with Ivan. Then the men drove into Manhattan, where Ivan dropped him off at his home. “Yuri did something wrong,” Ivan recalled. “Yuri told me that he was going to go and live in Europe. ‘I’m finished over here. Wednesday I’m going to get a lot of money, sell the apartment, and I’m going,’”
Sometime that afternoon, two unidentified men entered Brokhin’s apartment. “He knew the people he let in,” Drubin said. “He did not know he was getting hit. Everything was laid out – the briefcase, the jeweler’s loupe – like he was doing business. He was a burly guy, about five ten. He would have put up a struggle if he knew he was about to get it. And he laid down so nicely on the bed after he was killed, he hardly rumpled the bedcover.”
Drubin, who had interviewed more than a hundred suspects, concluded that Brokhin had probably been killed in a jewelry scam gone wrong, and that Balagula’s old nemesis, Vladimir Reznikov, had been the triggerman. “Yuri was pulling some con on West 47th Street and maybe there were some diamonds involved,” Drubin suggested. “Brokhin owed some money and pissed somebody off and he was killed.”
8 In an August 1994 interview with the New York Times, Peter Grinenko, by then an investigator in Brooklyn DA Joe Hynes’s office, downplayed the threat posed by Russian organized crime: “As organized crime in America, they are a flea on a horse.” In an interview with the author, Grinenko said, “My assessment is that there are too many fucking reporters out there that are making [Russian] godfathers. How does that sound? Would you quote me on that?”
Grinenko openly admits that he has had extensive business ventures in the former Soviet Union, including a project to manufacture an American cigarette there. Law enforcement officials experienced in Russian crime remark that it can be difficult to conduct such business without working out an accommodation with organized crime. According to The Economist, cigarettes are a gangster-ridden industry in Russia. “Two Philip Morris executives had to leave Moscow in a hurry in 1997 after they trod on the toes of the tobacco mafia,” the magazine reported.
“If Grinenko is making money in Russia, I mean, how do you do that without playing the [mob] game?” pondered an assistant U.S. attorney in New York who believes that his activities in the former Soviet Union create the potential for a conflict of interest. Grinenko responded: “They don’t know what they are talking about. You can work over there if you know what you’re doing.” The Brooklyn DA’s office declined to comment.
Incredibly, in the years between Brokhin’s homicide and the launch of Operation Red Daisy, law enforcement did little to stem the rising red tide of the Russian mob. Despite the efforts of individuals like Drubin and Campanella, and despite the glaring evidence that came to light in a few scattered prosecutions, such as that of Marat Balagula, there were still few authorities who understood, or even believed, that the Russian mob was a deadly threat. “Nobody takes the Russian mob seriously,” the soft-spoken Campanella said a few years after the Brokhin incident. “The lack of interest of law enforcement has given the Russians time to grow.”
A large part of the problem was political: the Russian mob was predominantly Jewish. It was for that reason, asserted Campanella and other New York State and federal law enforcement officials, that seven years after Campanella’s two-man Russian mob unit in the NYPD was inaugurated, it was shut down in a highly politicized, characteristically New York City type of reaction. The effort had come under considerable criticism from the Jewish establishment, which complained that the adverse publicity generated in the hunt for Russian Jewish criminals would foster anti-Semitism and jeopardize the continued emigration of Russian Jews to Israel and the West.
In Germany, where the arrival of the Brighton Beach mob was quickly recognized as a serious problem, police formed a task force of one hundred specially trained investigators in the early 1990s to combat the Russians, according to a classified report prepared by the German Federal Police in Wiesbaden. The Russian crime wave, which included bloody rubouts in fashionable restaurants on Berlin’s Fasanenstrasse, forced authorities to overcome their “supersensitivity … to the Jewish aspect of emigre crime,” said the report. But in the United States, according to several top law enforcement officials, Jewish organizations continued to lobby the Justice Department to downplay the threat posed by the Russian mob. “The Russian Mafia has the lowest priority on the criminal pecking order,” admitted FBI spokesman Joe Valiquette during a 1992 interview.
Some of Valiquette’s colleagues were harshly critical of the bureau’s lack of attention to the threat. They believed that the Organizatsiya had already developed into a new version of the Mafia; one that was just as ruthless as the Italian brand but potentially very much more difficult to tackle. “The Italian mobsters play boccie ball, the Russian gangsters play chess,” said one law enforcement source who marveled at their growing sophistication. And while the Russian mob may not have had the cumulative force of seventy years of tradition behind it, like La Cosa Nostra, by the early 1990s, some five thousand hard-core Russian criminals had already established themselves in the New York region, a criminal presence that was as large as all the Italian Mafia families combined.
“The Russians are an emerging crime group,” Justice Department prosecutor Patrick J. Cotter, a member of the team that convicted John Gotti, said in 1992. “They make tons of money, they kill people, they are international, they are moving into drugs – but we don’t have a single unit of the FBI that’s devoted to going after them. We’ve got a Bonanno squad, we’ve got a Lucchese squad, but we don’t have a Russian squad – so there is your problem. If we don’t begin to address the problem now, we’ll be running around asking ourselves how the hell this Russian organized crime got so big and how we can get rid of them.
“Money is power in crime as in everything else in this world,” Cotter continued. “If you ignore the fact that the Russians are reaping huge profits, you’re making a bad mistake. They’re not going to invest in IRAs. They’re going to buy businesses, they’re going to buy power. If we want to stop these guys, we better do it before they buy those things. If I’ve learned one thing from prosecuting the Mafia the last five years, I’ve learned that that’s the toughest kind of mob influence to rub out. It’s relatively easy to get the drug sellers, the gun sellers, the protection racketeers. It’s real tough to get the corporation that’s partly owned by the mob, or the union that’s been corrupted.”
There was, in fact, one official at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., who did believe that if the government didn’t quickly launch a full-scale assault on the Russian mob, it would become untouchable. James Moody, a strapping six-foot-three organized crime expert, spent his youth in the backwoods of Oklahoma – a large, barefoot boy in overalls, hunting and fishing with his brothers. His great-grandfather was the first chief of police in Stroud, his tiny hometown. Moody joined the FBI at age twenty-nine in 1970 after a six-year stint in the military that included two tours in Vietnam.
In August 1989, Moody was appointed chief of the FBI’s organized crime section. Examining the bureau’s past record, he realized that former director J. Edgar Hoover had not paid sufficient attention to the Italian Mafia, having instead devoted the majority of his resources to his corrosive obsession: combating domestic subversion and the perceived communist penetration of America. In the 1960s, when New York’s five Italian crime families controlled labor unions, the garment industry, and the docks, there was only one FBI field agent in Manhattan assigned to organized crime, whose very existence, Hoover had proclaimed, was “baloney.” The FBI had to wait until Hoover’s death in 1972 to undertake a serious investigation of La Cosa Nostra, but by then, it had become a criminal colossus. Moody didn’t want to repeat that error with the surging Russian mob.
Still, he was having trouble convincing colleagues of the seriousness of the threat; the FBI continued to be allowed to pursue individual Russian crimes only when it came across them. Then, in 1992, during the heady first days after the fall of communism, Moody received a visit from Mikhail Konstantinovich Yegorov, the first deputy minister of the interior for the Russian Federation. The Russian proposed an immediate cooperation agreement with American law enforcement to combat jointly the Russian mob.
“I can’t do it because we have so much of a past history of being enemies,” Moody told Yegorov, after spending a day chauffeuring him around the American capital. “We’re going to have to kind of take it a step at a time.”
But Yegorov would not be so easily dissuaded, and asked, “Okay, what can I do to improve the relationship and get it moving a little faster?”
“I don’t know of a specific thing right now, but whenever I identify one, I’ll get back in touch with you,” Moody replied.
It didn’t take Moody long to propose a specific plan. Two fugitives from Red Daisy – David Shuster and an accomplice – were known to be hiding out in Moscow. Moody wanted them, but Yegorov reminded him that the countries didn’t have an extradition treaty.
“That’s true,” Moody admitted. “We don’t have any treaties whatsoever. But expel those guys from your country as being bad,” he urged him, as a way to jump-start relations.
“About two days later, maybe three,” Moody recalled, “I come walking into my office and there’s a handwritten fax on my desk.”
“Mr. Moody, we’ve got them,” the note said. “Please come and get them.”
The previous day, a Russian commando unit wearing sky blue ski masks and bulletproof vests had stormed Shuster’s “import-export” firm in downtown Moscow; a furious gun battle ensued. When the shooting stopped, Shuster was on his back, being pummeled by members of the Russian Special Forces, but putting up an impressive fight all the same. “My understanding is that Shuster broke two sets of Russian handcuffs,” Moody said. “He’s not a very tall guy, but he’s strong as hell.”
At first, the Russians didn’t know what to do with him; Shuster was, in fact, being illegally detained. If they put him in jail, the Russian federal prosecutor’s office would learn that the Ministry of Interior was covertly working with the FBI and the event could spark a Cold War-style political firestorm. So in typically brutal Russian style, Shuster was transported to a dense forest outside of Moscow, dumped into a hole, and buried up to his neck in gravel.
The Russians informed the FBI that they would have to retrieve Shuster within three days, at which point he would be released. The bureau scrambled, but obtaining a Russian visa on short notice wasn’t easy in those days, even for a U.S. government agency. Finally, Klaus C. Rohr, an old organized crime hand and the FBI’s assistant legate in Bonn, made it into Russia, and was taken directly to Shuster. “We don’t have any jurisdiction in Russia,” Rohr told him, after identifying himself as an agent of the FBI. “But we’re going to put you on a plane and take you back to the United States, and I’m going to arrest you once we get back to America. If you give me any problems, I’m going to leave you in the hole.”
“No problem,” Shuster replied.
Moody immediately took the fax from Yegorov relaying the news of Shuster’s capture to Larry Potts, the assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division. He hoped to use the document to make a case for starting a Russian organized crime squad and for cooperating with Russian police and security officials – initiatives vociferously opposed by the foreign counterintelligence side of the FBI, which considered the Russians to be an everlasting threat to national security, perestroika or not.
“You might say all of our obstacles suddenly disappeared” after the Shuster snatch, Moody explained. With the strong backing of Attorney General Janet Reno, the FBI set up a Russian organized crime subsection at its Washington, D.C., headquarters in early 1993, which would report directly to Moody, and which received full authority to investigate the Russian mob as an organized criminal cartel.
Entrenched bureaucrats with Cold War hangovers continued to fight the new initiatives. It was only in May 1994 that the FBI office in New York, commanded by William A. Gavin, finally set up a squad specifically targeted to fighting Russian organized crime, and even then, he didn’t seem to realize just how late he had entered the battle. “I had a problem getting Gavin’s attention,” Moody explained, citing Gavin’s resistance to setting up a Russian force. “He said he liked to do his own thing. I said, ‘Okay, you go do your own thing, but you’re not going to do it with my manpower.’” It wasn’t until Moody started shifting personnel out of the New York office that Gavin capitulated. “I basically forced him into setting up the [Russian] squad,” Moody acknowledged. It was dubbed the C-24 squad.
With few informants and only a superficial knowledge of New York’s 300,000-strong Russian émigré community, the FBI realized how handicapped it was in this effort. Based on its early reports, Raymond C. Kerr, the head of the new Russian unit under Gavin, believed that there were three or four major Russian crime families operating in Brighton Beach, with outposts in at least five other U.S. cities. The largest family consisted primarily of Jewish émigrés, many of them from Odessa; a second family was from Tashkent, in Uzbekistan. The FBI had identified them as Muslim; people in the community insisted they were Jews. A third family was from Ekaterinburg, in Russia. As far as the FBI’s Gavin and Kerr could determine, each of the families had a Cosa Nostra-like pyramid structure with bosses or godfathers poised at the top, and beneath them the consiglieres, or advisers, and then the crews.
But virtually everyone else in law enforcement with a knowledge of the Russian mob challenged the FBI model. “You can’t put them in a family,” one DEA official explained. “One day, two guys are trying to kill each other, and the next day they are doing a dope deal together.” He added that while Italian wiseguys often specialized in particular criminal enterprises, the Russians tended to be generalists. “Whatever opportunity affords itself – that’s what they do that day.”
Meanwhile, with Shuster in hand, federal prosecutors moved forward with trying the Red Daisy case. Bootlegging czar Vladimir Zilber and six other Russians, as well as five Gambino crime family figures, had been indicted in Newark, New Jersey, for federal excise tax fraud, money laundering, and racketeering. But to solidify the case, the prosecutors still needed members of the criminal enterprise to cooperate and so they offered Shuster a deal he couldn’t refuse: if he agreed to testify against members of the massive bootlegging conspiracy, he would be given a letter that promises to petition the judge for leniency at sentencing as a reward for cooperation.
As part of his proffer agreement, or deal with the government, which required him to confess to every crime he had ever committed, Shuster admitted that he was an international pickpocket, gasoline bootlegger, and had dabbled in dealing Turkish heroin. The government confiscated $6 million from him, as well as seventeen cars and real estate, then stashed him in a safe house until the trial.
Local police were furious that Shuster had gotten a deal. They suspected that he had ordered a jewelry store heist in Lodi, New Jersey, that had led to the shooting death of an off-duty cop. The investigating officers had several witnesses, including gang members who were at the scene of the execution. The federal prosecutors were given the information, but chose to ignore it. As far as the police were concerned, Shuster – who vehemently denied his involvement in the affair – had lied to get his letter, and had gotten off the hook for killing a cop.
Zilber’s case was severed from the others; his attorneys alleged that brain damage from his attack on the FDR left him incompetent to stand trial. Whether or not he went to court hardly mattered. The government seized $550,000 in cash from his safe deposit box, and his $1.2 million house in New Jersey was put in foreclosure. His wife walked out on him. His brother, Alex, fled with the family fortune, heading first for Brazil, and then to Moscow, where he eventually ran an aluminum factory and a casino for the Genovese crime family. Vladimir spends his days on a bench on the Coney Island boardwalk gazing absently out to sea, or holed up in his meager apartment, listening to CNN. He receives free meals at Rasputin and his old gang pitched in to buy him a live-in whore. “The one thing I hear that’s still functioning well without any inhibitions is a lust for women of all ages,” a federal prosecutor related. “Vladimir has no control over himself. If his grandmother was in the room, he’d go after her. I think, no pun intended, his brain is really shot.” Even with Zilber’s forced retirement, however, his crowning achievement, Rasputin, continued to be a magnet for wiseguys from Little Italy to the Volga.
With Vladimir Zilber excused from testifying, Gambino capo Anthony “Fat Tony” Morelli became Red Daisy’s marquee defendant. Morelli was accused of directing subordinates to use intimidation and violence to collect the “mob tax” from the Russian bootleggers. A wealthy shylock and fence who was notoriously stingy, Morelli had retained high-priced attorney Barry Slotnick to represent his bagman Edward Dougherty, but then refused to pay his full fee. Slotnick’s enthusiasm for the case understandably waned, and when Dougherty deduced that Morelli was setting him up to be the fall guy, he joined the government’s growing cast of cooperating witnesses.
Although Morelli could afford to hire the best criminal lawyer in New York for himself, he retained a second-string Gambino house attorney by the name of Richard Rehbock, who regularly annoyed juries with his constant, seemingly irrelevant objections and bombastic speeches. It hardly helped Morelli’s cause when, about one month into the Red Daisy trial, Rehbock was the subject of a humiliating, frontpage exposé in the New York Post. Star gossip columnist Cindy Adams quoted Rehbock’s estranged wife, Sylvia DiPietro, as alleging that her husband had hidden $100,000 of mob cash in a suit in his clothes closet, and kept three sets of accounting books.
Having already angered Morelli as a result of his wife’s vexatious accusations, Rehbock further put himself in disfavor with his questionable trial strategy. Early in the case, for example, he made a colossal blunder when the government introduced Colombo soldier Frankie “the Bug” Sciortino’s personal phone book into evidence. The book was valuable to the prosecution’s case in that it listed Morelli’s various private phone numbers, as well as the telephone numbers of numerous Russian bootleggers and Italian gangsters involved in the Red Daisy bootlegging scam, and therefore helped establish the web of relationships in the Russian-Italian bootleg combine about which Dougherty, Shuster, and others were going to testify. The FBI had arrested the Bug on September 29, 1989, initially for witness tampering; the agent responsible for his apprehension was called to the stand merely to place the confiscated phone book into evidence.
In his cross-examination of the agent, however, Rehbock inadvertently helped prove the government’s case. Apparently unaware that the FBI agent was a well-known expert on organized crime and, moreover, had investigated every name in the Bug’s thick black book, Rehbock asked, “Agent, this doesn’t say, Phone Book of Frankie Sciortino’s Mob Friends, does it?”
“No, it just says address book, or telephone book,” the agent replied.
“Is the book entitled All My Gangster Friends?”
“The first entry, is he in the gas business?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is he a gangster?” Rehbock asked, his confidence growing.
“I can’t tell you.”
“Is he a person that’s listed on the little charts that you have on the wall in the F.B.I. office as an Organized Crime member?”
“I don’t know.”
Emboldened even further, Rehbock ventured forth. “How about the next one, Artie Goldstein, do you know him?”
“I believe he is in business on Long Island – a shylock victim.”
That’s what, a customer of Mr. Sciortino? Is that what you’re saying?”
“He had a loan with Mr. Sciortino.”
By asking the witness to characterize whether the people listed in Sciortino’s book were mobsters, Rehbock had opened the door for the government to do the same thing on redirect.
“Let’s go through some of the names,” said prosecutor Robert Stahl. “Anthony in Florida.”
“I believe that’s Anthony Trentascosta – a made member of the Gambino crime family,” replied the G-man.
“Go to page forty-five. Benny A.”
That would be Benny Aloi. I believe he’s a Colombo made member.”
After identifying a number of wiseguys, as well as Frankie “the Bug’s” loan shark victims, Stahl stopped just before Morelli’s name, by which point, “the jury was just laughing,” Stahl recalled. “We took a break, and Morelli says loud enough for us to hear, ‘Hey, Richie, whaddaya gonna do, the fuckin’ twenty years for me now?’”
The gangster’s prediction proved to be all too accurate; he was convicted and sentenced to exactly twenty years. In addition, eleven defendants were also convicted. Shuster was released from custody not long after the trial and is living somewhere in Brooklyn. Since he only testified against Italians, he has nothing to fear from the Russians.
However groundbreaking an effort the Red Daisy prosecutions – and several successful bootlegging prosecutions thereafter – they scarcely had any repercussions on the Russian mob, which continued to make tons of money as it spread across America. “The cancer is beyond the lymph nodes,” New York State taxman Berger glumly noted in 1994. Nevertheless, recognizing the severe destabilizing effect that organized crime was having on Russia’s tenuous democracy, FBI director Louis Freeh told a Senate subcommittee in May 1994 that the war against the Russian mob “is critical – not just for the Russians but for all of us, because the fall of democracy there poses a direct threat to our national security and to world peace.” Freeh traveled to Russia, where he proposed launching “a lawful, massive, and coordinated law enforcement response” against Russian organized crime. He suggested setting up an international databank and training Russian police in American investigative methods. That year, the FBI established such an academy for ex-Eastern bloc law enforcement officials in Budapest.
The relationship Moody worked so hard to forge quickly foundered. “There is a great distrust on the American side of the integrity of Russian law enforcement,” says Rutgers criminologist James Fickenauer, who was awarded a grant from the Justice Department to study Russian organized crime. “They want to sell their information. They think if the information is valuable, it must be worth something. These are badly underpaid people who are looking for money from wherever they can get it.” And, as the Genovese crime figure who backed Rasputin says, “We’ll always be able to pay more than the FBI.”
However short it fell of its goals, the Red Daisy campaign did mark the belated recognition by American law enforcement of how serious a threat the Russian mob actually posed. But although the FBI, along with other local and federal agencies like the DEA and Customs Bureau, could now focus some of its energies on penetrating the Mafiya’s extensive web of influence and corruption, the effort may have come too late. For looming just over the horizon was a force that dwarfed the Brighton Beach Mafiya in size and power, and it was headed directly for U.S. shores.
In May 1991, while eating breakfast at the National restaurant in Brighton Beach, Emile Puzyretsky was shot nine times in the face and chest. Fifteen diners witnessed the execution. “Ya nechevo ne znayu,” they all told detectives, “I don’t know anything” – even though the killer had carefully rummaged around the restaurant floor on his hands and knees, looking for the spent cartridges, some of which had become lodged under their tables. The reason for their silence was simple: no one in the restaurant wanted to be branded a stukatch, snitch, and risk a surprise visit from the killer – Monya Elson. After a six-year absence, the fearsome hit man had returned to Brighton Beach to claim his warm spot in the Russian mob.
“There are a lot of rumors in Brighton Beach that I killed Puzyretsky,” Elson said with a laugh. “You can say that I killed him to take care of business.”
Elson had spent most of his years away stewing in filthy, oven-like Israeli jails, to which he had been sentenced in 1984 after his effort to seek fame and fortune in the cocaine smuggling business had not gone as planned. Being marooned in an oppressive, flea-infested tent city for convicts in the barren, lunarlike Negev Desert was hardly what Elson had in mind when he set out to claim his place in the criminal hierarchy. To make matters worse, he heard stories about his contemporaries in Brighton Beach making big names for themselves in the Russian underworld. He yearned to return “home” to Brighton Beach and establish himself as one of the most respected men in the Russian mobs’ power structure. Prison did bestow on Elson one piece of good fortune: he became the cell mate and bodyguard for convicted spy Shabtai Kalmanovitch, cementing a criminal alliance that would pay big dividends for both men.
On August 19, 1990, Elson was released from jail, bursting “with a lot of ideas” about bringing some order to the mobocracy that ruled Brighton Beach. But first, he had some unfinished business to attend to in Moscow. Elson had learned while in prison that a well-known Russian hood had been spreading word that Elson was a musor, a rat. Supposedly, Elson had exposed some Russians running an international gun ring, a charge that, though he vehemently denied it, had circulated rapidly throughout the criminal grapevine. Elson was furious that his reputation was being maligned. “If he doesn’t like one word that comes out of your mouth, you’re dead,” says an acquaintance of Elson’s. “I said, ‘Hey Monya, you can’t kill people for that.’ He said, ‘Yes I can! ‘”
“He said I was a musor.” Elson recalled of the man who was bad-mouthing him. “I wanted to kill him. He thought that because I was a Jewish guy, and I had presumably left Russia forever, that it would be okay to play with Monya.”
As soon as he arrived in Moscow Elson quickly tracked down the malefactor and, with a single swing of an ax, hacked off his arm, leaving him to bleed to death. “Half the criminals will think I killed for revenge,” Elson remarked. “The other half will think that maybe he knew something, and I killed [him] to shut his mouth.” Citing an old Russian proverb, Elson explained his motive as: “Revenge is the sweetest form of passion!”
His business in Moscow complete, Elson, then thirty-nine, returned at last to Brighton Beach. This time, he knew precisely what he wanted to achieve, and he knew how to do so. He quickly assembled a team of experienced hit men, master thieves, and extortionists – a group the FBI dubbed “Monya’s Brigada” – and dispatched them to take over a large swath of Brighton Beach. He established his headquarters in Rasputin, where he received $15,000 a week from the Zilbers and a percentage of the raucous cabaret’s revenues. “I was the new epicenter for Russian organized crime,” Elson boasted. “Before, it was bullshit! It wasn’t fucking so tough.”
Elson’s braggadocio had a deadly bite. One of his first deeds was to murder Puzyretsky, who had been employed to defend a large Russian bootlegging combine that competed with the Zilber brothers for dominance in the gasoline business. Elson then methodically slaughtered many of the Zilbers’ rivals, propelling the three men to the top of the Russian criminal pyramid.
This was Monya’s golden age – a few short years between 1990 and 1993. With a small army and his savage determination, he seemed unstoppable, extorting and killing with impunity. “Monya was a nut,” said Gregory Stasiuk, the investigator for the New York State Organized Crime Task Force. “On one wire, Elson said to a tardy loan shark victim, ‘You are making me so crazy, I don’t know whether I should come over and kill you now or later.’”
“Monya loves to kill,” said a Genovese wiseguy. “He was a goon on a short, hot leash.”
Monya’s Brigada was soon becoming immensely wealthy, dealing in everything from coke to precious gems, which he allegedly smuggled from Manhattan’s jewelry district to Moscow. A December 1994 secret FBI intelligence report noted that “Elson is a principal player in the control of the export of diamonds, gold and other jewelry from the United States and other countries to Russia. A carat of diamonds can be obtained for $1,500 in New York, and sold for $10,000 in Moscow. Elson receives a kickback on every diamond and gold deal he brokers in Moscow. An unknown Austrian front company has been set up to receive the kickbacks. This concern has a permit from the Russian government to import these items. Elson believes this situation gives him ‘leverage’ with other O.C. [organized crime] players.”
At least one rival Russian mobster, however, refused to accede to Elson’s growing power. Boris Nayfeld, once the underling of the Little Don Evsei Agron and of Marat Balagula, had emerged as an estimable force in his own right while Elson was still confined in his Israeli prison cell. By the time Elson resurfaced in Brooklyn, Nayfeld was shuttling between Antwerp, where he lived in a luxury apartment with his mistress, and Staten Island, where he resided with his wife and children in a sumptuous home on Nevada Avenue across from a nature preserve.
Nayfeld came to prominence by running a heroin ring of French Connection proportions. He obtained the drugs in Thailand, smuggled them into Singapore, and then stashed them in TV picture tubes and shipped them to Poland through a Belgium-based import-export company, M&S International. From there, Russian couriers from Brighton Beach with valid U.S. passports “bodied” the heroin into the United States through New York’s Kennedy Airport. “Customs never looked,” said a DEA official. “Poland wasn’t an obvious transshipment point for drugs. It’s not Bogotá or Bangkok. They shotgunned each plane with three, four, or five couriers, all unknown to each other. They moved eight to ten kilos per flight, and it went on a good year before we caught on to it.” Eventually, the couriers expanded their operations to Boston, Chicago, and elsewhere, while the drug smugglers continued to make millions of dollars a planeload.
In New York, part of the drugs was sold to Sicilian mobsters out of a dive in Coney Island, while another faction of the ring dealt the heroin to Hispanic customers out of the S&S Hot Bagel Shop, next to Katz’s Delicatessen on East Houston Street in Manhattan. The DEA was impressed with the sophistication of the mobsters’ business. “What’s unique,” said one official admiringly, “is that these guys were actually controlling it from the source to the street.”
Elson, however, viewed his rival’s expanding empire with displeasure. “I knew when I got out of jail that Biba [Boris Nayfeld’s nickname] would still be in the ballpark. He would be a fucking problem,” Elson said derisively. “Everybody said Biba, Biba. Biba Shmeeba. I said he was a piece of ass. He’s a fucking nobody. And somebody sent word to Biba that I’m cursing him. And I said yes, I want to meet the motherfucker. He was a piece of shit! For this reason, I declared the war! I said, he cannot be what he wants to be! He’s a musor in his heart. He wanted to be somebody. He was never nobody. You know to be a godfather you have to have leadership qualities. He don’t have any qualities.”
Nayfeld responded to these taunts with a $100,000 contract on Elson, setting the stage for a massive gangland war. “They were like two gunslingers,” said Stasiuk, “who had to prove themselves top gun.”
On a frigid night shortly before the Russian New Year in January 1991, Elson’s men taped a powerful bomb under the muffler of Nayfeld’s car. The following afternoon, Nayfeld drove the car to Brooklyn to pick up his children at school. As the engine idled, the youngsters piled into the backseat. Just then, a maintenance man pointed to an object hanging from the chassis. The bomb, which was designed to have been activated by heat from the muffler, had become dislodged and failed to explode. “It could have taken out a city block,” said an assistant U.S. attorney.
Nayfeld wasted no time in seeking revenge. On May 14, 1991, Elson was speaking with some friends on the corner of Brighton Beach Avenue and Sixth Street in front of the Cafe Arabat, a Russian mob haunt. At exactly 3:00 P.M., a hit man sauntered up and pumped five dumdum bullets into Elson’s belly. “I never lost consciousness,” Elson insisted. “I wanted to shoot this guy. You can’t imagine how hot and painful the wound was. But I saw the guy, a black man, run away. I was going to shoot him. I didn’t have the strength to shoot him.” A friend rushed Elson to Coney Island Hospital. “The bullets made two holes in my stomach. My liver was severed. My pancreas was shattered. One bullet lodged in my left kidney and exploded.” Doctors removed the kidney, along with twenty feet of intestine. “If I had gotten there twenty seconds later, I would have been on a slab. They put me on a stretcher and I lost consciousness.”
Elson developed peritonitis. “There was a lot of puss in my pancreas, which was abscessed. There was a lot of puss in my stomach. And the doctors said to my wife: ‘He’s going to die now.’ And they put a tube into my heart.” Elson claims he was pronounced dead and wheeled into the morgue, but when “I heard ‘morgue,’ somehow I reacted. I twitched my toe as if to say I’m alive. They put me back in ICU. Then I had an operation. They told my wife I had a fifty-fifty chance; if I survived the first forty-eight hours, I might live. … I spent twenty-eight days in intensive care; my wife was advised to say her farewell to me.”
Elson recovered and quickly made another attempt at getting even with Nayfeld. One of Nayfeld’s paid assassins, Alexander Slepinin, was a three-hundred-pound, six-foot-five-inch veteran of Russia’s Special Forces, who had served in Afghanistan during the war against the Mujahedeen, the Islamic fundamentalist rebels. Nicknamed the “Colonel,” he had tattoos of a panther and a dragon on his upper torso, signs that he was a veteran of the Gulag. He was an expert in a variety of martial arts, and kept a large collection of swords and knives, which he used to dismember his victims in his bathtub before disposing of the body parts. He carried a business card that said he specialized in the techniques of mortal combat.
On a June morning, three shooters, including Elson, according to eyewitnesses and police officials, ambushed Slepinin as he sat in his 1985 Cadillac Seville on a residential street in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn. “He started crying, the big motherfucker, and admitted that Nayfeld had paid him to kill me,” Elson snorted gleefully. Breathing convulsively, Slepinin “asked for forgiveness.”
“We are not in the church,” growled one of the hit men.
The enormous man tried to squeeze his bulk through the passenger door, but was shot three times in the back, the bullets carefully aimed to ensure that his death would be agonizing. Thrashing and moaning, he continued to beg for his life, but two bullets to the back of the head finished off the Colonel. “He was huge, big, and mean,” Elson said. “He was a monster, a cold-blooded killer. The FBI has to give me an award.”
A few months after the Colonel was butchered, Elson received a tip that Nayfeld was planning to attend a meeting in a trendy part of Moscow. Elson’s informant knew the exact time and location of the conclave, as well as Nayfeld’s route to and from the gathering. Elson gave the contract to kill Nayfeld to Sergei Timofeyev, who was nicknamed “Sylvester” because of his resemblance to film star Sylvester Stallone, and his lieutenant Sergei “the Beard” Kruglov, two of the most vicious gangsters in Moscow. According to Elson’s informant, Nayfeld’s car was supposed to pass a high-rise apartment tower that was under renovation. Because its windows were covered with cardboard, an Olympic marksman, hired by Timofeyev and Kruglov, had to take aim at Nayfeld as his car approached the building by squinting through a peephole. But Nayfeld must have had a premonition, for at the last moment he pulled a hasty U-turn and disappeared into traffic. “It was Biba’s miraculous escape,” said a still bewildered Elson. “He had a lot of miracles.”
As did Elson. On November 6, 1992, Elson arrived in Los Angeles’s Plummer Park, a meeting place for Russian émigrés who gambled their welfare checks and drank cheap vodka. Elson, who was there to meet a friend, suddenly decided to return to his car to retrieve something he had forgotten. As he walked back to the parking garage, a black man crept up behind him and shoved a pistol against the base of his skull. Elson heard the click of its trigger, but the weapon jammed. “Can you imagine if the gun went off?” Elson asked. “My brains would have been scrambled eggs.” Elson spun around and wrestled the man to the ground, kicking away the gun. The assassin grabbed it back and, this time, successfully fired it repeatedly, backpedaling until he was able to escape. Elson was hit in the left hand, severing a tendon. At the hospital, he gave a fictitious name, and told detectives that he had fought off a mugger who was trying to steal his $75,000 Rolex watch. He later slipped out of the hospital without paying his bill and traveled to Arizona for painful reconstructive surgery. Before he left Los Angeles, however, another would-be assassin attempted to place an explosive inside his car. “The shnook couldn’t figure out how to wire the bomb,” says a law enforcement source. “The device exploded in the man’s hands, blowing them off.”
As the Elson-Nayfeld war raged on, dozens of gangsters were massacred. Some were gutted like sheep; others had their throats cut. Some were castrated with crescent-shaped knives; both the implements and the body parts became favorite gangster souvenirs. Though Elson and Nayfeld tried to enlist other influential gangsters to their respective sides, neither could gain a decisive advantage, and the bombs and bullets continued to explode from Brighton Beach to Moscow.
At one point Rafik Bagdasaryan, nicknamed Svo, a mighty vor from Soviet Armenia, tried to intervene on Nayfeld’s behalf. Svo was known as the diplomat of the Russian underworld, and he was so highly respected that, when he was poisoned to death in prison some years later by Chechen gangsters, his body was flown from a secret military airstrip near Moscow to his native home in Yerevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia. Svo’s funeral was held with a degree of pomp usually reserved only for members of the Politburo. His countrymen thronged his coffin, and the streets were showered with rose petals. Mob bosses and politicians came to pay their last respects. Lights were turned on for forty-eight hours in Yerevan, where the power supply was erratic at best.
Seeking to put an end to the deadly struggle, Svo telephoned Elson’s vaunted ally, the Beard. “I love you like a son,” said Svo. “I know you had a meeting with Monya in Yerevan, and I had a meeting with him in Yerevan. And Monya spoke about killing Biba. I’m asking you like my son, I like Biba, and please don’t get involved in this.”
The plea went unheeded. Elson learned from another informant about the impending arrival in Moscow of Shlava Ukleba, who worked for Nayfeld as an international heroin trafficker. On a blistering cold day, Ukleba’s hotel room was rocked by a thunderous explosion, which obliterated five adjoining rooms. “But nobody was hurt. It was wintertime, and Ukleba ran out of the rubble in his underwear. He ran all the way to Austria,” chortled Elson.
Then, on July 26, 1993, as Elson, his wife, and his twenty-five-year-old bodyguard, Oleg Zapivakmine, were emerging from a black Lexus in front of the couple’s Brooklyn apartment, a car careened toward the curb. The trio was sprayed with a “Streetsweeper” shotgun and Uzi submachine gunfire. Elson, who was carrying a briefcase with $300,000 in watches and jewelry from New York’s diamond district, was shot in the back and thigh. His wife, Marina, bolted from the Lexus and hid in a crawlspace, behind two garbage cans. A masked man leapt from the attacker’s vehicle and pumped two shotgun blasts into the cowering woman from several yards away. Seventeen pellets tore through her face, throat, chest, and shoulder.
An all-out gun battle ensued with shotgun pellets peppering the entire length of the seventy-five-foot apartment house, penetrating neighbors’ cabinets and walls. “It was like the Persian Gulf War,” Elson recalls. More than a hundred rounds were exchanged between the hit team and Elson and Zapivakmine, who was only lightly grazed in the stomach.
Incredibly, the two men managed to fend off their assailants. “You missed me. “You missed me! You missed me!” Marina shrieked all the way to the hospital. “She had seventy stitches,” Elson says. “You won’t believe how many bullets and pellets she has in her chest.” To this day, Marina has so many bullet fragments lodged in her body that she sets off metal detectors at airports.
Marina had been deliberately targeted. “We know she joined Monya on killing sprees,” observed the DEA’s Louis Cardenelli. “Our CIs [confidential informants] said that’s the only way you could hit a woman.” Moreover, if she had survived her husband, Cardenelli added, Marina had the authority to order Monya’s Brigada to exact a swift and terrible revenge. (Mrs. Elson refused to comment.)
Having learned of the shootout, Major Case Squad detective Ralph Cefarello raced to the hospital. “Elson was laying there waiting for the docs to work on him, and I’m trying to question him,” Cefarello recalled. “He played his usual game. He said politely, ‘I’ll tell you anything. I want to know who did this to me. But I didn’t see the shooters.’” Before exiting the room, Cefarello brushed by Elson’s bed, intentionally pulling off the bed sheets. The gangster was stark naked. The word MONYA, framed by two green bands, was emblazoned around Elson’s penis.
“I had a kid in uniform who spoke Russian standing guard. They had no way of knowing he was Russian-speaking. As soon as I left the room, Elson turned to his wife and said, ‘Don’t tell these pigs a thing!’”
A short time after the incident, the FBI visited their bullet-marred apartment complex. Zapivakmine was sitting on their front porch, carefully surveying the street. In a confidential report of the meeting, the FBI wrote, “Elson indicated that he knew who was behind the shootings. Elson was particularly angry because of the shooting of his wife, and he stated that he would not rest until he gets his revenge. He said that his revenge will not occur in the United States but will happen somewhere overseas.”
Unbeknownst to Elson, his bodyguard had been warned in advance of the shooting. A representative of the People’s Court – the authoritative group of Russian organized crime leaders in Brighton Beach – told Zapivakime that Elson was going to be killed because he had committed too many unauthorized murders and extortions. They cautioned him not to interfere, according to a classified FBI report, but Zapivakmine ignored the admonition and had seriously injured a member of the “Streetsweeper” hit team who was brought to the same Coney Island hospital that was treating the Elsons. Two weeks later, Zapivakmine was shot in the back of the head while changing a flat tire in Brooklyn.
With Zapivakmine’s execution, the balance of power began to shift. “Elson had very capable guys that he brought in as reinforcements from Israel and the former Soviet Union,” said a Russian wiseguy. “But every week, one of them would get their heads blown off by a shotgun blast. Even Monya realized it was time to get out.”
However, it was not Boris Nayfeld who finally convinced Elson to flee to Europe in November 1994. The force behind the “Streetsweeper” incident, the man who posed the first serious challenge to Elson’s hegemony and had more resources than any other Russian gangster who had come before him, was Vyascheslav Kirillovich Ivankov, and the dreaded vor had come to the United States from Moscow to take over the Russian Jewish mob in America.
Ivankov had begun his outlaw career in the back alleys of Moscow in the early 1960s. By age fifteen, he was a cocky, bare-knuckled street brawler who beat up people for the fun of it. His hooliganism eventually attracted the attention of a large criminal organization headed by a notorious gangster named Gennadiy “the Mongol” Korkov, who specialized in turning Soviet star athletes and martial arts masters into extortionists. Under Korkov’s tutelage, Ivankov was trained to shake down black marketeers, bribe-taking bureaucrats, and thieving store managers – all of them underground millionaires who could hardly risk reporting thefts to the State. Ivankov’s crew invaded their homes, dressed as Soviet militiamen, armed with forged identification papers and search warrants. This “militia” would confiscate the victim’s valuables, inventory the goods, and order the owner to show up in court the next day for further questioning. Of course, the merchandise would disappear along with Ivankov. A sophisticated racketeer for his day, the Mongol also added intelligence and counterintelligence wings to his operations, a lesson Ivankov would not forget.
With a taste for theatrics, the young Ivankov set out to build a mystique around himself. He expropriated the name of the legendary Russian bandit Yaponchick, which literally means “the little Japanese” in Russian. The original Yaponchick, whose given name was Mishka Vinnitsky, ran the seamy Jewish underworld in the pre-revolutionary Black Sea port of Odessa. Yaponchick and his gang became folk heroes when they joined the Red Army during the Revolution. Gang members tattooed their chests with the communist Red Star. Instead of being rewarded for their revolutionary zeal, however, they were imprisoned by the Bolsheviks soon after the war. (Yaponchick has since been the subject of many books and films, most notably Benya Kirk, a 1926 Soviet, Yiddish-language, silent film written by Isaac Babel.)
Ivankov’s own career was temporarily derailed in 1974, when the manager of a Moscow café complained to the real militia about his extortion demands. An entire detachment of Soviet militiamen was dispatched to apprehend Ivankov, who was found hiding in his car in a Moscow suburb. A sensational gun battle ensued, and Ivankov made a daring getaway. The shoot-out only enhanced his growing legend as a social bandit who stole from the wealthy parasites living off the workers. Ivankov also distinguished himself for his bravado, for while the U.S.S.R. had plenty of common criminals, they virtually never used weapons against the authorities.
Ivankov quickly became the target of one of the biggest manhunts in Soviet history. After six months on the run, the weary brigand finally turned himself in, claiming that he was not a criminal at all, but a paranoid schizophrenic. The more serious charges against him were dropped, and he was sentenced to five years in a Soviet psychiatric detention hospital. Eventually wearying of feigning mental illness, Ivankov asked to be retested and was subsequently sent to a penal colony. There he was quickly inducted into the brotherhood of the vor v zakonye.
After he was released from prison, Ivankov went back to work for the Mongol, becoming his senior associate. During the next two years, Ivankov committed hundreds of extortions and armed robberies, leaving behind him a long trail of mayhem and acts of mindless savagery. In 1981, for example, Ivankov and his crew broke into the apartment of a well-to-do black marketeer, brandishing their weapons. Handcuffing the terrified man to a bathroom radiator, Ivankov threatened to douse him with acid if he didn’t pay back an alleged debt. With a gun jammed to his forehead, he was forced to sign a promissory note for 100,000 rubles; Ivankov then stole a Dutch Masters painting, a stamp collection, and 3,000 rubles. Ivankov was arrested for the home invasion in 1982 and charged with robbery, aggravated assault, and extortion, for which he was sentenced to fourteen years in a maximum security prison camp in Siberia. Because several of those arrested with him were famous Soviet athletes who had turned to crime, the authorities saw to it that the case received no publicity.
Back in prison, the despotic Ivankov once again became the top vor, enforcer, and kingpin. He stabbed one inmate in the back and clubbed a prison guard over the head with a metal stool. After several of his victims died, he was placed in a brutal punishment cell for a year. But the murders did not add time to Ivankov’s prison sentence, because in the code of the “Zone,” or the Gulag, the victims had brought their deaths on themselves by failing to obey the code of ethics of the thieves-in-law.
Even from prison, Ivankov was able to maintain control over the vast Vladivostok region in the Russian Far East, and increased his criminal power by establishing business enterprises as far away as Moscow, from which he received regular and substantial income. Once, with the help of two Russian accomplices from Toronto, he persuaded several major Russian banks and investors to buy $5 million worth of shares in a phony Siberian gold mining company. (One of the Russian banks sent a hit man to Toronto to terminate Ivankov’s co-conspirators, but the Mounties arrested him.)
While Ivankov served out his sentence in the frigid wastelands of the U.S.S.R.’s vast penal colonies, major changes were taking place behind closed doors in Soviet crime and government. As early as the mid-1980s the KGB had notified the gray cardinals around Politburo boss Konstanin Chernenko that the Soviet Union’s socialist economy was doomed; chronic corruption, inefficiency, and the enormously expensive arms race with the United States had bankrupted Lenin’s revolution. The KGB recommended two options: one was a first-strike nuclear attack against the West, which was seriously considered by xenophobic elements who couldn’t bear the prospect of losing the Cold War. The second option was to loot the bountiful motherland of its remaining wealth.
During Gorbachev’s reign, the KGB began to hide communist party funds abroad, according to top-level Western and U.S. intelligence sources. The KGB consequently set up some two thousand shell companies and false-flag bank accounts, some as far away as Nevada and Ireland. Over the next eleven years, perhaps as much as $600 billion was spirited out of the country, in the greatest looting of a nation in world history. No matter what happened to Russia during a political transition from communism to a quasi-market economy under perestroika, the party bosses had effectively guaranteed that they would continue to control key state resources and property. Stealing such a massive amount of wealth, however, turned out to be a larger job than anyone had expected. The KGB ran out of people to sequester assets, so they expanded their operation to the criminal Mafiya, explained Richard Palmer, a twenty-year veteran of the CIA, whose final assignment was as a station chief in the former Soviet Union from 1992 to 1994.
In its haste to stash party funds, the KGB modernized the relatively small Soviet Mafiyas, which had previously been based along neighborhood, regional, and ethnic lines. They were outfitted with everything from the latest high-tech computers to sophisticated communications gear. After communism crumbled, many KGB men, military officers, and government officials went to work for the emerging Mafiya organizations. Young Russian entrepreneurs sporting MBAs from the best schools in Russia and the West also swelled their ranks.
By the early 1990s, organized crime in the Soviet Union had evolved into a diabolical troika consisting of gun-wielding mobsters and vors; nomenklatura types and the black marketeers that tailed them like pilot fish; and many current and former members of the government, military, and security services. Nevertheless, vors like Ivankov still represented the pinnacle of organized crime. Like made guys in the American La Cosa Nostra, Russia’s eight hundred thieves-in-law held varying degrees of position and power depending on their abilities. A vor could reign over a region as vast as Siberia, with a representative or supervisor (smotryashchiy) accountable to him in every regional city in which he had influence. A vor might control many Mafiya groups simultaneously, head an association of gangs, or lead a single gang. Some thieves-in-law might be part of the supply group (obespechenie) or the security group (bezopasnosti) in a Mafiya organization.
By the mid-1980s, there were nearly nine thousand criminal gangs in Russia with 35,000 members. During “privatization,” the period when the government put everything from the great oil and gas giants to hotels in downtown Moscow up for sale, organized crime and the Russian government continued their mutually beneficial relationship. The criminals needed export licenses, tax exemptions, below-market-rate loans, business visas, and freedom from arrest and prosecution for their crimes. All of this and more was available from corrupt bureaucrats, especially since inflation had wiped out the savings of everyone in Russia who wasn’t participating in the grab. A dozen or so “oligarchs” took over vast state properties and became among the wealthiest men in the world. As for law and order, police officers, for example, who didn’t steal or take bribes were unlikely to be able to feed their families. A survey of Muscovites conducted in September 1994 by the Russian Academy of Sciences revealed that 70 percent of the respondents would not ask a Moscow police officer for help when threatened by a crime.
Soon nine leading Mafiya organizations controlled more than 40 percent of Moscow’s economy. (Some experts say the figure is at least 80 percent.) Practically every business, from curbside kiosks to multinational corporations, paid protection money. “In 1917 we had the Bolshevik revolution, and all the rules changed,” a Russian banker declared. “In the late 1980s, we had a Mafiya revolution, and the rules changed again. If you’re a businessman you can either pay the mob, leave the country, or get a bullet through your brain.” Russian criminal groups penetrated virtually every level of the government, from Russia’s parliament, the Duma, to President Yeltsin’s inner circle. Even the immense arsenals of the Soviet armed forces were plundered.
But in the gold rush years of the late 1980s and early 1990s, competition for the Soviet Union’s booty inevitably led to gangland turf wars. The Chechen Mafiya, which had always been a powerful force in Moscow’s turbulent underworld, called in reinforcements from their mountain redoubt in the republic of Chechnya. Relentless as the Golden Horde that had thundered across the Russian steppes and sacked the city in the Middle Ages, the group came close to gaining control over the city’s rackets, leaving the formerly dominant Jewish, Georgian, Armenian, and Slavic mobs in disarray. Corrupt Soviet oligarchs started preparing their departure in order to avoid the carnage.
Ivankov’s panicky colleagues desperately concluded that they, too, needed additional troops and that, more importantly, it was time to spring the powerful vor from jail. Ivankov’s release was scheduled for late 1995, but in early 1990 two of the nation’s most powerful mafiosi orchestrated a letter-writing campaign in support of his early parole. One of them, Otari Kvantrishvili, was a brawny, forty-six-year-old native of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. A national sports hero, Kvantrishvili had been a wrestler on the Soviet Olympic team, an all-European champion wrestler, and chairman of the prestigious Russian Athletes Association, a government-sponsored union. In the late 1980s, he set up the Twenty First Century Association, ostensibly as a charity to aid needy Russian athletes. Although the association also established banks, casinos, and other enterprises, in fact, “this notorious company has never had any legitimate business interests and was structured only as a front to conceal proceeds of extortions of Russian businessmen” and other crimes, as a secret FBI report revealed.
Ivankov’s other powerful patron was Joseph Kobzon, the dapper, sixty-year-old Russian pop singer. A cultural icon, Kobzon was a household name to generations of Russian music lovers. He frequently brought Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to tears at public functions with his soulful renditions of patriotic ballads. But for decades, Kobzon had been using his star persona to hide a sinister criminal identity. According to the CIA, Kobzon was Russia’s “crime Czar”; a secret FBI document described him as the “spiritual leader” of the Russian Mafiya in Moscow, who was “highly respected … because of his intelligence, contacts, shrewdness and ability to help when [organized crime] groups get into trouble. Not just anyone can gain his assistance, however; only high-level [mobsters]. He settles disputes between groups and belongs to no particular organization.”
“Kobzon,” says the FBI’s James Moody, “is definitely one of the most influential criminals in Russia. He is very, very high-ranking. And very dangerous.”
In the crime-addled Soviet Union, Kobzon’s true status as a top crime boss didn’t dissuade the Soviet government from appointing him to the Russian Olympic Committee, making him the dean of the School of Popular Music at Moscow’s Music Academy, as well as Moscow’s minister of culture, among other prestigious positions. The singer has twice been elected to the Duma. During his first stint in the late 1980s, he was formally introduced to the U.S. Senate by New Jersey Democrat Frank Lautenberg. Kobzon was elected to the Duma a second time in 1998 from a tiny, impoverished autonomous district in eastern Siberia near Russia’s border with Mongolia, despite never having lived there – or even campaigning there during the election. Vladimir Grishin, the rival candidate, claimed that Kobzon’s campaign manager doled out 100 million rubles in donations to local charities, 35 million rubles to a local hospital, and allegedly promised additional cash and a new fleet of buses for the district if he were victorious. Grishin filed fraud charges with the Central Election Commission, but nothing ever came of it.
One of Kobzon’s most lucrative activities, however, was smuggling arms. For example, he was allegedly able to help maneuver a corrupt Russian Defense Ministry official, Viktor Atiolkin, into the top job at the Rossvoorvzheniya, the only government agency that can authorize the export of weapons from Russia. “This position can greatly assist OC figures in arranging sales of tanks, rocket-propelled grenades, surface-to-air missiles and possibly even nuclear materials,” explains the FBI report. In one instance, Kobzon brokered the sale of surface-to-air missiles to Iran, according to a federal wiretap affidavit and a top investigator for U.S. Customs who specializes in the Russian mob.
Thanks to the efforts of Kvantrishvili and Kobzon, President Gorbachev and Supreme Soviet Chairman Boris Yeltsin received hundreds of additional letters from famous Russian scientists, artists, and politicians asserting that Ivankov had been successfully rehabilitated. Even the warden of his Gulag prison grudgingly acknowledged that Ivankov “is not the worst inmate.” To assure his release, the judge handling Ivankov’s case was bribed by Semion Mogilevich, the Budapest-based don who has been implicated in laundering billions of dollars through the august Bank of New York; other payoffs went to a former Russian minister of internal affairs and an unidentified state prosecutor, according to classified FBI reports, U.S. court documents, State Department records, and interviews with senior U.S. and European law enforcement sources.
The campaign succeeded and Ivankov was freed in February 1991. His liberators quickly put him to work at their most critical task: to destroy the barbarians at the gate, the Chechen Mafiya invaders. Ivankov duly mounted an awesome offensive, employing a brigade composed of hundreds of hardened criminals. In typical Ivankov fashion, he went above and beyond the call of duty, wantonly massacring rival gangsters. His methods were, as always, cruel. Car bombings rocked the capital, casualties mounted, and the bloodbath became so violent that it began frightening away Western investors. Ivankov’s excesses were infuriating the very politicians who had helped free him, for while stemming the Chechen tide, he had become a liability. “Ivankov had big problems,” says the DEA’s Cardenelli. “He had to leave. The Chechens were coming to kill him. Friends in the government told him that they wanted an end to the high-profile gangland war.”
As a result, in early 1992 the Bratsky Krug, or the Circle of Brothers, the ruling council of the vors, is said to have ordered Ivankov to “Go to the New Land and invade America!”
Vyacheslav Kirillovich Ivankov’s arrival in America on March 8, 1992, was tantamount to the coming of a great white shark. He was met at JFK airport by an Armenian vor who handed him a suitcase packed with $1.5 million in cash. Swiftly setting up offices in Brighton Beach, Ivankov recruited two “combat brigades” led by an ex-KGB officer and composed of 250 former athletes and Special Forces veterans of the Afghanistan war. He put the combat brigades on a $20,000-a-month retainer to kill his enemies, collect tribute from legitimate businesses worldwide, “arbitrate” disputes among Russian businessmen, and establish “an international link closely connecting thieves-in-law to the United States,” according to a classified FBI document.
“When Ivankov came into town, I never saw such fear,” remarked a Genovese wiseguy.
Soon after Ivankov appeared in New York, Alex Zilber, still one of the most powerful forces in Brighton Beach, asked one of his Genovese partners to arrange a sit-down with him. The mobster offered to have the Italians kill Ivankov, but Alex pleaded with them not to go to war. “I’ll be okay here in Brighton Beach,” he said, “but they’ll take me out in Russia [where he had extensive business interests]. Let’s pay him.” Ivankov celebrated his new partnership in Rasputin by hosting a lavish champagne party there.
The Old Guard of Russian Jewish gangsters had little choice but to cooperate with Ivankov. He was regarded as a prolific moneymaker, and many ranking members of the Brighton Beach mob were by then aging, quasi-legitimate businessmen who no longer had the fortitude for an extended gangland war. And as the Zilber brothers realized and hit man Moyna Elson soon discovered – resistance was futile. The “Streetsweeper” shooting, which precipitated Elson’s flight, “put the fear of God” into the Old Guard, commented Elson’s lawyer, James DiPietro. “We were amateurs compared to Ivankov and his men,” observed Brighton Beach-based Jewish gangster Vladimir Ginzberg. “We had a criminal past, but not so rich like them.”
Indeed, much of the fear that Ivankov inspired was due to the fact that he came invested with the full backing of Moscow’s most powerful crime lords. Made affluent and powerful by the fall of communism, their gangs had grown unprecedently large and fierce, and enjoyed a wealth of resources in the corrupt former Soviet Union that dwarfed that of even the most significant Russian mob operations in the United States. Now, as perestroika bloomed, the Mafiyas based in the former Soviet Union began to reach across suddenly unrestricted national boundaries, sending their soldiers and bosses like Ivankov out around the globe to either reconnect with or conquer their comrades who had emigrated a generation earlier.
In fact, in the post-perestroika years, thousands of Russian thugs were easily slipping into the country. The understaffed and ill-equipped Immigration and Naturalization Service seemed helpless to stop them. Ivankov landed in the United States traveling under his own name, with an official foreign-travel passport. His visa, good for two weeks, had been obtained directly from the U.S. embassy in Moscow. He was sponsored by Manhattan-based shipping magnate Leonard Lev, a fifty-eight-year-old émigré who had started his career in time-honored fashion as a master pickpocket in Kiev before becoming a partner in Marat Balagula’s gasoline operations and the Odessa restaurant.
Lev’s Park Avenue company controlled a massive fleet of deepwater ships in Panama, which the government suspected of smuggling everything from coke to the latest model Ford Bronco, and of obtaining American visas for any number of mafiosi. “Bullshit,” said Lev about the alleged smuggling. “I move chicken parts.” If a ship’s captain smuggled contraband, he was completely unaware of it, he told me.
Lev had created a “film” company called Twelve-LA, and wrote the U.S. embassy requesting a visa for Ivankov, saying he was a film consultant. Then Lev helped the recently arrived Ivankov enter into a sham marriage so he could apply for a green card and, after that, U.S. citizenship. Over drinks at the Odessa, Lev introduced Ivankov to an aging Russian lounge singer. She agreed to marry the vor for $15,000, getting her first installment from Lev in a cigarette box stuffed with $5,000 in crumpled greenbacks. Part of the deal was to get a quickie divorce in the Dominican Republic after Ivankov got his Social Security card.
Ivankov’s criminal domain in the New World rapidly expanded into gambling, prostitution, and arms sales, as well as participation in gasoline tax fraud. In Brighton Beach, he had shrewdly placed reliable members of the Jewish Organizatsiya’s Old Guard like Lev as prime facilitators, using their knowledge about the American banking and criminal justice systems to obtain crooked lawyers, government contacts, passports, visas, and green cards.
“Ivankov brings with him the tradition of hard-core Russian criminals’ dedication to their own authority and their experience in deception and corruption practiced under Communism,” commented a classified FBI report. “While not abandoning extortion, intimidation and murder, Ivankov also incorporates more subtle and sophisticated modern methods which enable cooperation with other groups, the exploitation of weaknesses in legal and financial procedures, and the use of current Eastern European and Eurasian political and economic instability to further his empire.”
In Miami, Ivankov allegedly took over a hidden share of Porky’s, a strip club where he “was shown great homage” by the club’s owner, Ludwig “Tarzan” Fainberg, a Russian crime lord, said U.S. intelligence sources, and also entered into a deal to provide heroin and money laundering services to the Cali cartel in exchange for cocaine, which was earmarked for Russia. In Denver, he obtained a hidden interest in a sprawling Russian restaurant from Vatchagan Petrossov, an Armenian vor, who was Ivankov’s international drug adviser, asserts the FBI. Ivankov also bought large parcels of real estate in the Rocky Mountains. In Houston, he purchased a used car dealership for money laundering. In New Jersey, he met with Russian bankers about possible deals in Thailand, Brazil, and Sierra Leone, where he wanted to steal diamonds. Ivankov was fascinated with the complexities of Western banking, and listened intently as the bankers explained to him the intricacies of a financial instrument known as American depository receipts. In Manhattan, meanwhile, financial wizard Felix Komorov became his chief money launderer, according to the FBI.9
Outside the borders of North America, the cagey vor constantly traversed Europe, the Middle East, and Eurasia as restlessly as a nomad, keeping close links to his own formidable organization in Russia, which the Circle of Brothers allowed him to maintain. “It seems like I go from meeting to meeting, flying around,” he wearily told an associate over a government wire. In the summer of 1994, Ivankov presided over two Appalachian-style sit-downs in Tel Aviv with his son Eduard, where dozens of gangsters gathered at the plush Dan Hotel to discuss their investments in the Jewish state, according to U.S. and Israeli intelligence sources. During his global travels he also recruited the most intelligent, ruthless, and boldest young Russian criminals for his U.S. operations. Wooing them with promises of the “good life,” according to a classified FBI report, he opened bank accounts for them and provided credit cards and automobiles for their use. Ivankov himself “seems always able to reenter the United States undetected after each trip,” declared an FBI report.
Ivankov also reinforced old relationships with leaders of various Eurasian criminal underworld groups, such as the Budapest-based Mogilevich organization and the Solnt-sevskaya family, Moscow’s mightiest criminal enterprise, which had more than 1,700 members. Its neighborhood stronghold in the suburbs of southern Moscow was where the communists released criminals when they were freed from the Gulag. These hoodlums and their offspring grew into tough mob leaders who flourished during perestroika when they seized more than eighty commercial companies, prime real estate, hotels, and other property. The Solntsevskaya organization is divided into ten- to twelve-member combat brigades, which are headed by criminal avoritets. Each unit controls assigned banks and business concerns in Moscow and the suburbs. At the same time, the group has a shared fund, or an obshchak, to which all brigades allocate money on a regular basis. When friction arises, members of several brigades come together to negotiate.
With other crime groups, however, Ivankov battled for territory. He was particularly determined to dominate the nascent Russian trade in cocaine, a drug that had quickly soared in popularity among the nation’s nouveaux riches. Two Russian criminals stood in his way. One was the Georgian vor Valeri “Globus” Glugech, the first gangster to set up large-scale drug importation to Moscow from suppliers in the United States, a venture that made him a wealthy man. Ivankov invited Globus to visit the United States in early 1993 and “offered” to buy out his operation, a proposal Globus refused. In March 1993, Globus was shot to death by a sniper outside a discotheque he owned in Moscow. Three days later, his principal lieutenant, Anatoly Semionov, was gunned down in front of his Moscow apartment. Two weeks after that, another top aide, Vladislav Wanner, was killed at an open-air gun range in Moscow. At a May 1994 sit-down in Vienna, the heads of several Russian organized crime groups officially awarded Ivankov the remnants of Globus’s drug business.
The next Russian drug kingpin to fall was Elson’s friend Sergei “Sylvester” Timofeyev, who directed his mob’s activities from Cyprus. Timofeyev and Ivankov had had a long-standing beef. Ivankov had an illegitimate son, Viktor Nikiforov, also known as Kalina, who had become a thief-in-law and a powerful figure in the Moscow underworld while his father was in prison. Just before Ivankov was released, Kalina was murdered. Most underworld figures believed Sylvester had ordered the hit, although no one could prove it.
Typically, however, Russian gangsters do not let their personal animosities stand in the way of their business, and the two men continued to make deals. In July 1994, Sylvester and Ivankov completed a drug transaction, after which Sylvester complained that he had been shortchanged by $300,000. A few weeks later Sylvester traveled to New York to work out the dispute with Ivankov. The meeting ended with the two cursing and shouting at each other, Ivankov accusing Timofeyev of having murdered Kalina, as well as assassinating his friend Otari Kvantrishvili outside a Moscow bathhouse. One month after the altercation, Sylvester was blown apart in Moscow by a car bomb placed in his Mercedes, and he had to be identified by his dental records.
Ivankov also nurtured his high-level contacts with corrupt Russian government leaders, as well as with former leaders of Russian intelligence and military services. He employed high-profile former foreign government officials as his international “diplomats.” One such figure was Tofik Azimov, the former principal representative of the Republic of Azerbaijan to the European Economic Community. Azimov was handpicked by Ivankov to provide a “legitimate” front for Atkom, a “consulting firm” that allegedly laundered tens of millions of dollars out of a $10,000-a-month office suite in Vienna. The city is popular with Russian mobsters because of its strict banking secrecy laws, its three-hour flight time from Moscow, and its abundance of corrupt state bureaucrats. The money laundering operation was, in fact, directed by Ivankov’s son Eduard, who “conducts a wide array of financial and banking transactions throughout Central and Western Europe (including England) in an effort to launder proceeds of Ivankov’s illegal activities,” according to the FBI. Atkom employed two female secretaries, a former member of the Austrian Special Forces who worked as an armed bodyguard, and a Russian emigrant and an Austrian citizen who did nothing but process banking transactions and money transfers, according to a classified Austrian police document. Azimov came in handy when two Solntsevskaya crime lords had to leave Russia because of attempts on their lives; it was he who arranged for the mobsters’ visas through Atkom. As stunned FBI officials later learned, the Russian gangsters were even welcomed into the country by Viennese police officers with gifts of semiautomatic Glock pistols “for self-defense.”
Within just a year after he arrived in the “New Land,” Ivankov had succeeded in extending his insidious influence from Austria to Denver to the icy Baltic republics. His organization was visionary, well managed, efficient, wealthy, merciless, and expanding. He muscled into Russia’s oil, aluminum, and arms businesses. Tens of millions of dollars of illicit proceeds was laundered through the U.S. banking system. He frequently used front companies, through cooperation or extortion, to facilitate money laundering and the sponsorship of “business associates” for visas to enter the United States. It was said by his associates that he could provide millions of dollars in credit to finance a deal with a single phone call. His vast power was “propelled by a network of influential contacts and seemingly unlimited funds,” said a classified FBI report. “Ivankov is a shrewd and respected leader over a group of ruthless members knowledgeable in business, financial, legal, and government operations. In addition to extortion, money laundering, drug trafficking, Ivankov is suspected of not only arranging numerous murders but bragging about them.”
By January 1995, Ivankov and the Russian mob had grown so bold that they even convened a summit in the U.S. commonwealth of Puerto Rico, at the San Juan Hotel and Casino. Shortly before the rendezvous, Toronto-based Russian crime figure Joseph Sigalov was overheard on a Royal Canadian Mounted Police wiretap boasting that he was going to Puerto Rico “with Yaponchick [Ivankov] … to discuss who we will kill, fuck!” Known by his gangland friends as Mr. Tomato because of his oversized head, Sigalov was the publisher of Exodus, an influential Orthodox Jewish newspaper in Toronto sponsored by the Chabad movement, which was active in resettling Russian Jewish refugees. Sigalov also owned a bakery and was a venture capitalist.
Robert Kaplan, Canada’s solicitor general in charge of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (the nation’s CIA) from 1980 to 1984, and a member of Parliament for twenty-five years until he stepped down in 1993, was Sigalov’s business adviser for thirteen months beginning sometime in 1994. Kaplan said that charges that Sigalov was a mobster were “ridiculous … and hard to believe. … It was never an issue for me while I was working for him … because there was nothing reported about it then or said about it. No one in the community said this is someone to stay away from and no one did say that. He was very active in the Russian Jewish community in Toronto, which was rapidly growing,” adding that Sigalov helped the émigrés join synagogues and rediscover their religion.
But Sigalov’s good deeds and legitimate business affairs were little more than a cover for international heroin smuggling, arms trafficking, and extortion. In one incident, Ivankov ordered Sigalov and Vyacheslav Sliva, the godfather of Russian organized crime in Canada, to have their henchmen visit the mayor of Kharkov in Ukraine. The thugs not only strong-armed the mayor into paying protection money to operate the city-run casino, but for good measure also took over control of Ukraine’s state-sponsored lottery, according to the RCMP.
Sigalov and Ivankov were joined at the Puerto Rican concalve by the elite of the Russian underworld: along with Joseph Kobzon and mob leaders from Georgia, St. Petersburg, Miami, and Brighton Beach were Viktor Averin and Sergei Mikhailov, heads of the Solntsevskaya organization. Although the Puerto Rican meeting was supposed to be a discussion about “who we will kill, fuck,” the mob bosses seized the occasion to express their ire at Ivankov. They were incensed over his reckless behavior, accusing him of gratuitously murdering dozens of Russian cops, customs officers, and tax police in his unbridled quest to dominate Russia’s drug trade. The violence was attracting too much attention from the law and ruining everybody’s business, they complained. When they patiently tried to work out an equitable division of the drug spoils, an implacable Ivankov simply refused. Miraculously, the mobsters did manage to agree on several mutually beneficial rubouts without a quarrel.
9 Komorov, who headed a vicious extortion ring, also allegedly ran a complex advance fee scheme in which five Russian-American “salesmen” were sent to a trade show in Moscow in 1992, where they sold nonexistent electronic equipment and foodstuffs to some twenty Russian enterprises. It worked in this manner: In January 1992, according to a classified FBI report, a number of Russian and Ukrainian émigrés affiliated with a major Eurasian crime group “established an agreement with a scientific center in Russia for the use of the facilities and a bank account. They also established a front company and a respective commercial bank account in New York City. The bank account was opened with a false New York State driver’s license. The address was a mail drop. Seized documents revealed approximately thirty other bank accounts associated with the New York front company. False identities of prominent U.S. citizens were used to open the accounts and establish short-term credit for the fraud scheme in Russia.
“Five persons acting as representatives of the front company subsequently perpetrated an advance fee scheme at a business exposition in Moscow,” says the FBI report. “They sought out buyers of computer equipment and consumer goods, offering low prices. More than 20 Russian enterprises were victimized, making advance payments of over $6 million to the scientific center account. The front company then transferred the money to their other accounts without fulfilling contract obligations. The FBI and MVD [The Russian Internal Affairs Ministry] have traced $1 million of the illicit proceeds to New York City.”
Of the five “salesmen,” one accepted a plea bargain and received a five-month jail term. Two others cooperated with the government and entered the Federal Witness Protection Program. Another “salesman” was captured by the Russian authorities and imprisoned, and a fifth is still waiting to be sentenced in New York. Komorov was never charged.
Not surprisingly, Kobzon offered a far different version of the events in Puerto Rico to a Russian newspaper. He claimed that he had traveled to the Caribbean to enjoy an old-fashioned vacation with several family members and close friends, including Valery Weinberg, publisher of the Manhattan-based Novoye Russkoye Slovo, the largest and most influential Russian-language daily newspaper in America. With a circulation of some 180,000, it reaches nearly every Russian émigré home in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Connecticut, where more than 300,000 now live. The paper is unique among the dozens of Russian publications in America for its routine glorification of the Russian mob and its vilification of U.S. law enforcement, especially the FBI, further contributing to the alienation of an émigré group that has bountiful enough reasons to suspect authority. The paper’s editorial slant has helped to keep the émigré community insular and suspicious. Nevertheless, in March 1999, Weinberg received the prestigious “outstanding leadership” award for his work on behalf of Soviet Jewry from the UJA-Federation, a large, nationwide Jewish philanthropic organization. Weinberg’s wife, Lilly, is the UJA’s New York Russian division chairwoman. The awards dinner was held at Manhattan’s luxurious Plaza Hotel and the featured speaker was Senator Charles Schumer, the junior Democratic senator from New York, who said that “as you better yourselves, you better America. Those who say you should close the doors to immigration should come into this ballroom.” The ballroom included Weinberg’s friends, some of whom have used business success and philanthropy to, in effect, launder their questionable pasts, and rub shoulders with the unwitting elite of the American Jewish community.
Weinberg’s philanthropy extended to writing character references for Kobzon after the United States State Department revoked Kobzon’s visa and banned him from entering the country in June 1995 because of his Mafiya ties. Although Weinberg says he never met Ivankov or any other mobster while vacationing in Puerto Rico, Kobzon recalled socializing with the engaging vor. “When he recited [Russian poet Sergei] Yesenin by heart, I thought, ‘well, this is a swell guy.’”10
“We spent a wonderful time with our families,” Kobzon went on. “I have a photograph where we are all together in Puerto Rico,” recounted the singer, who favors pancake makeup, eyeliner, and a thick black toupee shaped into a pompadour. “We spent days on the beach. In the evenings we relaxed. We had a daily regimen. We went to restaurants – then to the casino. … This was all in one hotel. And that’s how it lasted for several days straight. Then Slava Fetisov [the former NHL superstar and now a coach for the New Jersey Devils] came to see us for two days. Then Anzor Kikalishvili [who succeeded Otari Kvantrishvili as president of the mobbed-up Twenty First Century Association, which helped Ivankov win his early release from the Gulag] called from Miami and said: ‘Guys, it’s very dull here. How is it where you are? Can I join you for a day?’”
“’Come, Come.’ So he came for a day.”
FBI agents monitoring the summit loitered around the hotel wearing paisley shirts, trying to look inconspicuous, and filming as much as they could from behind potted plants. After the Russians departed, agents scoured Kobzon’s hotel room for incriminating evidence and retrieved a matchbook in a wastepaper basket with Ivankov’s name and Brooklyn phone number on it. They also discovered that calls had been placed to Ivankov’s cell phone from Kobzon’s hotel room.11
This is what the FBI was reduced to. Scrounging around Kobzon’s room, looking for clues, and picking up matchbooks out of garbage cans. The FBI had inaugurated its Russian organized crime unit only some eight months earlier. Already playing a bad game of catch-up, it was ill prepared for the tidal wave of Russian criminals unleashed on the world by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Apart from what it learned from a few scattered prosecutions, the bureau was still largely in the dark about how this new Red Menace operated, who controlled it, and steps that might be taken to stop it. The FBI did realize, however, that it had to act fast.
Unfortunately, the chronically turf-jealous FBI barely cooperated with the government’s other investigative bodies who were also investigating the Russians, such as the INS, the IRS, and the DEA. To make matters worse, local police forces were kept almost completely in the dark. (In 1999, relations between the influential FBI office in New York and the Manhattan district attorney’s office – which were conducting separate investigations into money laundering charges at the Bank of New York by the Russian mob – became so hostile that the bureau announced that any agency that got in its way would be slammed with obstruction-of-justice charges, according to the New York Times.) The FBI preferred to operate independently, poring over wiretap transcripts of suspected mobsters, tailing suspects, recruiting informants, and generally trying to gather intelligence on the burgeoning Russian Mafiya.
10 Disillusioned with the Russian Revolution and his failed marriages to the American dancer Isadora Duncan and to Sophia Tolstoy, Yesenin committed suicide in 1925. His poetry celebrated peasant life and nature.
11 In the summer of 1999, Kobzon’s suite of luxury offices at the Intourist Hotel inside the same building that houses the Twenty First Century Association was bombed. Kobzon escaped injury.
Despite Ivankov’s flagrant, multinational criminal activities, during his first years in America, the FBI had a hard time even locating him. “At first all we had was a name,” says the FBI’s James Moody. “We were looking around, looking around, looking around, and had to go out and really beat the bushes. And then we found out that he was in a luxury condo in Trump Towers” in Manhattan.12
But almost as soon as they found him, he disappeared again leaving nothing but vapor trails for the FBI to follow. “Ivankov,” explained an FBI agent, “didn’t come from a walk-and-talk culture,” like Italian gangsters who take walks to discuss family business so they can’t be bugged or overheard by the bureau. “As soon as he’d sniff out the feds, he’d go into hiding for days at a time,” a trait that made him harder to keep tabs on than Italian mobsters.
“He was like a ghost to the FBI,” says Gregory Stasiuk, the New York State Organized Crime Task Force special investigator. Stasiuk picked up Ivankov’s trail at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, the Trump-owned casino that the real estate magnate boasted was the “eighth wonder of the world.” The Taj Mahal had become the Russian mob’s favorite East Coast destination. As with other high rollers, scores of Russian hoodlums received “comps” for up to $100,000 a visit for free food, rooms, champagne, cartons of cigarettes, entertainment, and transportation in stretch limos and helicopters. “As long as these guys attract a lot of money or spend a lot of money, the casinos don’t care,” a federal agent asserted. Russian mobsters like Ivankov proved a windfall for the casinos, since they often lost hundreds of thousands of dollars a night in the “High-Roller Pit,” sometimes betting more than $5,000 on a single hand of blackjack. “They’re degenerate gamblers,” says Stasiuk. Although the FBI still couldn’t find Ivankov, Stasiuk managed to tail him from the Taj Mahal to shipping mogul Leonard Lev’s sprawling home on a dead-end street in Far Rockaway, Queens, and on another occasion, from the Taj to the Paradise Club, a notorious Russian mob haunt in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, then managed by godfather Marat Balagula’s youngest daughter, Aksana, the onetime aspiring optometrist.
So wily did Ivankov prove to be that the FBI couldn’t gather enough evidence against him to convince a federal judge to grant a wiretap. The Canadian Mounties eventually came to the bureau’s aid, for they had recorded numerous conversations between Sliva and Ivankov plotting various crimes. The grateful feds used the recordings to win a court-authorized wiretap to listen in on his multiple telephones, which provided the fullest picture yet of the vor’s world.
In one monitored phone conversation, Ivankov was barely able to conceal his rage when a colleague in Russia described how several mob associates were shot to death in an ambush in downtown Moscow by a rival gang. In another transatlantic call, an accomplice told Ivankov that two deputy mayors in Moscow who were on Ivankov’s payroll were becoming too independent-minded. “They are trying to get involved in politics and they are fucking wanting to get rid of us,” complained Ivankov’s comrade. “These people are our tribe.”
“I’m trying to solve the problem with the deputy mayor,” Ivankov brusquely replied.
In another call, an underworld confidant told Ivankov that he had an Israeli gangster “beaten severely” for trying to cheat him on a diamond deal.
“It’s not enough just to beat him … this fucking animal,” Ivankov growled.
When Ivankov learned that a piece of property in Russia he had coveted was taken over by a rival mob, he screamed, “No fucking way! I’ll fuck them all, the living and the dead!”
Ivankov had many prosaic conversations about the philosophy of the vors with Moucheg (aka Misha) Azatian, an imposing enforcer type who lived in Los Angeles. The code of the vor – which Ivankov called “human law” – was pure, honest, and uncorrupted by politics. He ridiculed the political pretensions that were the foundation of perestroika, declaring that it was merely a cynical plot devised by the ruling class to control the populace. After perestroika “they’ll invent something different, again and again, and this is an endless process,” he told Misha. “But in any case, everything is fine, brother. We live according to human law. And according to the law of our mini-state, everything is done in an honorable and honest way. And that’s it.”
“Of course, brother,” Misha replied. “There is nothing better than human law, and that’s the only important thing in the world.”
“Of course, conscience and honor – that’s the only law we keep,” Ivankov reminded him.
The FBI got particularly lucky in the autumn of 1994 when Bank Chara in Moscow collapsed under suspicious circumstances, costing its depositors more than $30 million. Some $3.5 million of the money had been invested in Summit International, a New York investment house that had been founded by two of Chara’s Russian board members, Alexander Volkov and Vladimir Voloshin. The Summit executives were no strangers to organized crime. Volkov, Summit’s president, is a thin, wiry, chain-smoking ex-KGB officer with a noxious temper. Voloshin, Summit’s VP, is a member of the Lyubertskaya crime family in Moscow, where he had once mixed up a target’s address and torched the wrong apartment, as well as its female inhabitant. Their unlicensed Wall Street investment firm was actually a giant Ponzi scheme, preying mostly on Russian émigrés who were promised up to 120 percent per annum returns on phony companies with names like “Silicon Walley.” To cover itself in a cloak of fiscal respectability, Summit entered into a contract with Prudential Securities vice president Ronald Doria to serve as its financial adviser. (Doria was later terminated by Prudential, and took the Fifth, refusing to testify, during a National Association of Securities Dealers arbitration hearing.) Between 1993 and 1995, Volkov and Voloshin took in $8 million from investors, spending nearly the entire sum on their own lavish entertainment: beautiful women, long weekends in the Caribbean, and gambling junkets to Atlantic City. In one night alone, Voloshin lost $100,000 at Bally’s Hotel; he covered it with his investors’ money.
In the spring of 1995 Bank Chara’s new president, Roustam Sadykov, flew to New York to ask Summit’s directors to return the bank’s missing funds. When the men refused, Sadykov turned to Ivankov to collect the debt. “This should be fairly simple,” Ivankov told an accomplice over a government wire. “If you call the men and use my name that makes people do what they are supposed to do.” When Ivankov and two henchmen paid a visit to Summit’s Wall Street offices, Volkov and Voloshin fled in terror to Miami. But Ivankov’s men caught up with them when they returned to Manhattan, kidnapping them at gunpoint from the bar of the Hilton Hotel and forcing them to sign a contract promising to pay one of Ivankov’s associates $3.5 million. “You understand who you are dealing with?” snarled Ivankov to the Summit officials. As an inducement to honor their commitment, Voloshin’s father was stomped to death in a Moscow train station.
12 A copy of Ivankov’s personal phone book, which was obtained by the author, included a working number for the Trump Organization’s Trump Tower Residence, and a Trump Organization office fax machine.
Unbeknownst to Ivankov, however, the pair had informed the FBI of the extortion. Voloshin had initially flown to San Francisco to implore members of the Moscow-based Lyubertskaya crime family, which had a modest contingent in California, to help him rid himself of Ivankov, but when they declined, Voloshin and Volkov were left with the FBI as their only recourse.
On the morning of June 8, 1995, a squad of FBI agents yanked a sleepy-eyed Ivankov from his mistress’s bed in Brighton Beach. They found a gun in the bushes outside the apartment and $75,000 in cash on the kitchen table. One of the documents that was seized contained the name of a Russian banker who was hiding in the United States with his wife and children. Although the FBI would have preferred to arrest Ivankov on bigger charges, and had been trying to gather evidence to assemble a racketeering case against him, they had no choice but to arrest him for extortion before he could kill the Russian bankers. As he was being led into the FBI building, a defiant Ivankov kicked and spit at reporters. “I eat my enemies for dinner,” he sneered.
Ivankov might actually have avoided conviction had he shown his six co-defendants that same degree of loyalty he demanded from them. Incarcerated at the Manhattan Correctional Center awaiting trial with his underlings, Ivankov tried to bully them, dictating which attorneys they should hire, and instructing them how to subordinate their defense strategy to his. He warned that anyone who did not follow his orders would be his “enemy for life.”
Still, there were rebellions. One day, Ivankov and his cohorts gathered in a tobacco-filled day room at MCC to figure out how to spin incriminating wiretap conversations. According to FBI interviews with Ivankov’s gang, Yakov “Billy Bombs” Volovnik, a nervous cokehead, who had a prior conviction for his role in a Russian mob jewelry theft ring, pleaded with Ivankov for funds to hire a decent attorney. Ivankov refused, ordering him to get the money from Leonid Abelis, the man who had been in charge of the day-to-day operations of the extortion plot.
“I have no money to spare,” complained the six-foot, 220-pound, thirty-seven-year-old Abelis, a former machinist in Russia. “I’m paying for my own lawyer. I have my own family to think about.”
“What, I do not have a family?” Ivankov angrily replied.
When the hulking Abelis started to rise from his chair, the 150-pound, five-foot-four-inch, fifty-seven-year-old vor grabbed him by the shoulders and growled, “Sit down, you whore! I will settle everything with you shitheads!”
Billy Bombs pulled the men apart, warning them not to quarrel in prison where they were undoubtedly under surveillance.
Ivankov spared no expense for his own defense, hiring Barry Slotnick for a sum of $750,000. The fee was underwritten by the sale of property in upstate New York owned by shipping magnate Leonard Lev; the proceeds were routed through a company in Monrovia, Liberia, according to a U.S. Customs agent. (Lev denies that he had anything to do with the defense costs and, in fact, didn’t even control the property at that time.) Whatever the case, Ivankov left his co-defendants to fend for themselves. But Abelis – who had fought with Ivankov over money – believed that he was being set up by Slotnick and Ivankov as the fall guy, and turned state’s evidence. Billy Bombs Volovnik quickly followed suit.
Still, the government’s case had holes. Ivankov had carefully insulated himself by generally staying on the sidelines while his henchmen made the extortion threats, invoking his name to induce terror. Furthermore, the Summit executives scarcely fit the role of sympathetic victims. Not only had they stolen millions of dollars from their Russian-American clients, but according to court testimony, they had also taken more than $30 million from Russian banks before coming to America.
Slotnick, who had just concluded a long mental competency hearing for his client Genovese crime boss Vincent Gigante, seemed unprepared during the crucial opening stages of Ivankov’s trial. He unconvincingly tried to portray the Russian godfather as a kind of Robin Hood who was guilty of nothing more than defending Bank Chara from greedy career criminals. Indeed, Slotnick argued, Ivankov was a Russian national hero who had been defying communism since grade school, spending half his life in the Gulag rather than being forced to sing the “Internationale.”
But Abelis’s testimony proved devastating. Not only did he establish Ivankov as the mastermind of the Summit extortion, but for good measure, he described Ivankov’s shakedown of the Rasputin nightclub. After a five-week trial, the jury took just three hours to convict Ivankov and his associates of extortion. Voloshin and Volkov went into the Federal Witness Protection Program. In a subsequent trial, Ivankov and Leonard Lev were convicted for conspiring to arrange the sham marriage that allowed Ivankov to stay in the United States.
At the sentencing for the second case, Slotnick’s partner, Jay Shapiro, compared Ivankov to Soviet Jewish refuseniks, Jews in Nazi Germany, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. (“To use his [Ivankov’s] name in the same sentence as Solzhenitsyn is a sacrilege,” the FBI’s Raymond Kerr later remarked.) Ivankov was nevertheless smacked with a nine-and-a-half-year jail term for the two convictions. “Let them put me on the chopping block – let them crucify me on a cross,” snarled Ivankov. “I’m tough. I will survive!”
In many respects, Ivankov does survive. Not only did he pave the way for the Russian Mafiya’s second wave to invade America, putting in place a significant web of businesses and criminal relationships, a legacy that could later be exploited by other mobsters, but, according to several North American law enforcement agencies and Italian crime bosses, Ivankov continued to run a sophisticated crime empire from the federal prison in Lewisburg, giving orders in ancient dialects like Assyrian and using criminal codes the FBI has yet to master. “The FBI, the MVD, the FSB [the former KGB] have stolen my life from me,” he told a Russian newspaper. “I have a list of who committed these crimes – both on the side of Russia and on the side of the FBI. … I know who all these people are. And I warn them that they will answer for their crimes.”
In the winter of 1999, Ivankov was found with heroin in his cell and traces of the narcotic were detected in his urine. He was transferred to a maximum-security wing at Allenwood Federal Penitentiary.
Courtesy of Josh Weiss | Ludwig "Tarzan" Fainberg, left, and Tony Galeota before they were both arrested and charged with trafficking women and drugs. Fainberg was the main target of a 1997 federal trial over an alleged plot to use a Russian submarine to ship Colombian cocaine to California.
(editor's note: image added for this publication)
In the middle of Miami’s shabby warehouse district near Hialeah Race Track stood a squat, windowless one-story building. As its name implied, Porky’s was a strip club, though it was much seedier than its namesake in the movie of the same title. In its dimly lit corridors, working-class Cuban men from the nearby rough-and-tumble neighborhoods pawed topless dancers, or received jiffy blow jobs for a few dollars a pop. In a filthy, dungeonlike office, away from the ear-splitting disco music and the smoky bar where strippers solicited lap dances, Rocky, the forty-two-year-old day manager, remembered better days, when Porky’s was run by a brawny Russian gangster known as Tarzan. “Ivankov was here surrounded by three goons,” Rocky told me. “I saw Ivankov with my own eyes. Did Ivankov and Tarzan know each other? Oh, yeah! Did they do business together? No question. The Russian mob came in all the time.”
Porky’s was once a howling, hedonistic beacon for Russian wiseguys from Tashkent to Brighton Beach. Gangsters craving sultry young, $1,000-a-night Eurasian prostitutes, Colombian cocaine, and Soviet-era weapons knew Porky’s was the place to come to. Recreational drugs, bootlegged boxes of Philip Morris cigarettes, and stolen bottles of ice-cold Stolichnaya vodka could be procured just as easily. The club was abuzz with so much Russian mob activity that even local policemen jokingly referred to it as Redfellas South.
Rocky pointed out a memento from Tarzan’s glory days: a framed photo of the club’s most famous stripper, mega porn star Amber Lynn, who charged $25,000 a week to perform. “The regular dancers [at Porky’s] didn’t get paid,” said Rocky, who was once a bodyguard for one of the biggest Colombian drug lords in Florida and had emptied a thirty-round Mac-10 clip into a nightclub during a gangland dispute. “They worked on tip money, much of which I suspect was kicked back to Tarzan.” Adorning the wall was also a promotional flyer for Porky’s fourth anniversary party, featuring a photo montage of Tarzan fondling a series of exotic dancers. In one shot, he leered directly into the camera, while two big-haired, blond strippers pressed their enormous bosoms into each side of his face. Rocky said the flyer used to hang in the office next to a photo of Tarzan’s four-year-old daughter. “Tarzan doesn’t care about anyone except himself. He has no loyalty to anyone. One night he cut the commissions the girls get on drinks. They went ballistic. I said, ‘Wait till the end of the shift. They are threatening to go on strike.’ He backed off. I said, ‘Why do you always have to screw everything up?’ He was a piece of shit!”
On a September day at the tail end of Hurricane Floyd, when rain was still soaking the blacktops, I took a taxi to the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami to interview Tarzan. His real name is Ludwig Fainberg, and he was, until the feds nabbed him, the flamboyant ringleader of the South Florida Russian mob. When I got to the prison, the guards relieved me of my passport, my keys, and a pack of chewing gum. “It’ll cost us $2,000 to unjam a lock from that gum if an inmate gets ahold of it,” I was told by way of explanation. After passing through a metal detector and two machines that monitored my hand, which had been coded with incandescent ink, I was led to a large, open rectangular room where prisoners in gray jumpsuits silently waited for their lawyers and guests.
In a glass-walled cubicle at the back of the room, I spotted Tarzan, a huffy, thirty-eight-year-old man with a grim glare, slumped over a brown Formica table. He used to have wild, acid-rock-size hair, but it was shorn now; he once took pride in a steroid-enhanced, muscular physique, but when I saw him he looked like a deflated inner tube. He slammed a thick document down on the table. It was his indictment, and it was a heavy load. Conspiracy to distribute cocaine and heroin. Weapons trafficking. “It says, ‘The U.S.A. vs. Ludwig Fainberg,’” he griped. “Who can fight the U.S. government?” He sounded like an adolescent. “I already spent a million dollars on lawyers,” he said.
Tarzan first became conspicious in Miami in the early 1990s. He had all the makings of a successful mobster: he was greedy (he held numerous fund-raisers for various charities and the state of Israel, pocketing 85 cents of every dollar, according to the DEA; Tarzan is adamant that he never stole from Jewish charities); he was ruthless (he once forced a woman to eat gravel); and he was ambitious (he once brokered a complicated negotiation involving the transfer of a Russian military submarine to Colombian narcotraffickers).
In Russia, Tarzan told me, dishonesty is a trait that’s bred in the womb. Deprivation teaches Russians to be cunning predators – it’s the only way to survive, he said. Americans, on the other hand, are trusting souls. Their rules, Tarzan figured, were made to be broken.
Ludwig Fainberg was born in Odessa in 1958. When he was three, his family moved to Chernovtsi, a small city in western Ukraine. He sang in a national boys choir, and was trained in a boxing program set up by the Soviet military. “When I was a kid everything that I did made people laugh,” he said. His inspiration was a Soviet comedy team that was similar in style to that of the Three Stooges. His stepfather, who manufactured Persian rugs and thick fur hats for a Soviet factory, was a dealer on the burgeoning black market. He’d trade rugs and fur caps for choice cuts of meat, some of which he’d barter for hard-to-get items, such as theater tickets. Then he’d trade the tickets for something more valuable – fresh vegetables.
One day in 1972, when Ludwig was thirteen, his parents announced that they were moving the family to Israel, where they hoped to increase their already considerable wealth. Ludwig, who had never known the family to identify with Judaism in any way, was confused. “Jew” was just something stamped on their passport, he thought, signifying their ethnic group. To him, being Jewish simply meant having certain privileges. “Jews were the richest people in town,” he told me. “Jews had cars, Jews had money, Jews lived in nice apartments. We were comfortable. My mother had nice clothes and jewelry. We took a vacation once a year to Odessa, a stunning city with a boardwalk and gorgeous beaches. It was filled with mobsters and entertainers. It was a city with a Jewish flavor.”
In Russia refuseniks – Jews who had denounced communism and were denied an exit visa – were sometimes accorded a touch of grudging respect. But in many cases Jews like the Fainbergs, who left for economic reasons, were despised. When Ludwig’s teachers learned that he was moving to Israel, he was forced to stand in front of the six-hundred-member student body and denounced as a traitor. On the way home, he says, he was beaten by classmates. “Why do we have to be Jewish,” Tarzan cried to his parents.
Before leaving, the Fainbergs converted their money into gold and diamonds, stashing some in shoes with false bottoms and hiding the rest in secret compartments of specially built tables and chairs, which they shipped to Israel. There, Ludwig lived on a kibbutz. According to his friends, that’s where he got his nickname – he bestowed it upon himself after jumping off the fourth floor of a building to attract attention.
Tarzan, who soon stood at six feet one, joined the Israeli navy and applied to the elite Navy SEALS commando unit. But he washed out during basic training, and served the remaining three years of his service in the main weapons room of a destroyer. He wanted to be an officer but failed the exam. “I did not have enough brains,” he told a reporter. “It was a very difficult exam.”
In 1980, a restless Tarzan moved to East Berlin. He had one Russian friend in the city who had official-looking medical diplomas – just one of the many varieties of forged documents the Russian mob had for sale. The friend asked Tarzan if he wanted to be a doctor, too. “Are you crazy?” Tarzan said incredulously. “Do you think I want to kill patients?” He settled for a dental technician’s license, but his gross incompetence got him fired from seven jobs in a row.
Like many young Russian émigrés in East Berlin, Tarzan joined a mob crew. He specialized in credit card fraud and counterfeiting. Then the brawny lad decided to try his hand at extortion. Working for a mob group run by the notorious Efim Laskin – who had sold weapons to the Red Brigades – Tarzan was ordered to nab a German banker. Tarzan and two accomplices accosted the banker as he ate lunch at an expensive restaurant and forced him into the trunk of their car. But when the man swore he could get no money until his bank opened after its lunch break, the hapless extortionists agreed to release him, and arranged to meet him at the bank at four o’clock. Moments before the rendezvous, Tarzan stepped out of the car and walked to a nearby pillar for a smoke. Suddenly, a group of rival gangsters in four Mercedes-Benzes pulled up in front of the bank and beat his accomplices severely. A terrified Tarzan fled all the way to Brighton Beach.
Tarzan found Brighton Beach to be an unsavory haunt for murderers and thieves. “It was the Wild West,” he recalled. “I took my gun everywhere.” His fortunes improved markedly when, soon after arriving in Brooklyn, he married Maria Raichel, a wastrel Russian Mafiya princess. Her grandfather, her ex-husband, and her brother-in-law were all known by the same sobriquet – Psyk – the Russian word for “psycho.” Her grandfather earned the name after he cold-bloodedly stabbed a man to death in Russia. Her first husband, Semion, and his brother Naum eventually became big-time extortionists, and ran their own crew; but because of their irrational behavior they were shunned by other Russian gangsters. Semion, for instance, threw a Ukrainian prostitute into a bathtub and threatened to toss in an electric appliance until she promised him a share of her earnings. Then, for good measure, he forced her to give him a blow job. The woman subsequently told her tale to the cops and Semion was arrested. A few days later, she received a long-distance phone call from a deep-throated man who told her that someone wanted to speak to her. “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, they will kill me!” a voice cried. It was the woman’s three-year-old child, who was living with relatives in Ukraine. The woman dropped the charges. “He’s an evil, horrible person,” says a New York City detective who worked on the case.
Although Tarzan had married into mob royalty, the relationship had its downside. Maria wanted him to live off the fortune left behind by Semion, who was serving a seven-year prison sentence in Germany for extortion. She bought Tarzan $3,000 tuxedoes for nights on the town, and expected him to stay home and watch game shows. He felt like a sissy and found refuge in the criminal exploits of Grecia Roizes. Their families had been close friends in Chernovtsi, and later in Israel. In Russia, Roizes had spent three years in a prison in Siberia for hitting someone so hard in the stomach that his guts came through a recent medical incision. Now he headed one of the most feared Russian crews in Brighton Beach and owned a wholesale furniture store with branches in Coney Island, Italy, and Russia. (The DEA and a knowledgeable figure in the Genovese underworld say that the store fronted a heroin business that involved the Gambinos, the Genoveses, and a host of Russian mobsters.)
Tarzan helped Roizes’s crew with torch jobs and extortion, and soon developed an interest in furniture. After a young couple in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, refused to sell their wholesale furniture store to Roizes for a fire sale price, they permanently disappeared. Tarzan claims that he was shocked when they vanished, but he happily took over their business.
Inevitably, the Russian mobsters crossed paths with their Italian counterparts. By intuition, or perhaps a sure knowledge of the territory, this happened to Tarzan on a day when an old woman walked into his new store and asked to buy a cheap bedroom set on credit. “This ain’t a bank, lady,” a clerk named Vinny curtly replied. Tarzan overheard the conversation and gave her the set for free. He even loaded it on his truck and drove it to her house. Tarzan said that he felt sorry for her, and that besides, he liked catering to old people and “kibitzing” with them.
The following day, a powerfully built Italian man sauntered into a video store that Tarzan ran and introduced himself only as Frankie. “I’m the son of the old woman,” he said, offering Tarzan coffee and pastries. “I owe you. Anything you want is yours.”
Tarzan says he was awestruck. “You could feel his power,” he recalled. “He was the kind of man who wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Over the next few years, if the rent at Tarzan’s video store was raised by the landlord, he’d call his friend Frankie, and it would be taken care of. When an Italian extortionist tried to shake down Tarzan, Frankie’s boys had him pistol-whipped in front of his wife. “They are going to find you in a car cut in little pieces,” the wife shrieked at Tarzan.
Tarzan claimed he never knew the identity of his Italian patron until one day in 1987, when he saw a picture of him in the tabloids. The papers identified him as the late Frank Santora, a notable in the Colombo organized crime family, and reported that he had been shot twice at close range outside a dry-cleaning store on a quiet Brooklyn street.
Soon, many of Tarzan’s friends were coming to grief: Vladimir Reznikov, one of Brighton Beach’s most successful professional killers, was shot to death in front of Marat Balagula’s popular restaurant and nightclub Odessa. Then Tarzan lost his crewmate Alexander Slepinin – the three-hundred-pound, six-foot-five-inch tattooed hit man known as the Colonel who was brutally executed by Monya Elson. “My mother loved the Colonel,” Tarzan gloomily recalled.
Fainberg decided he should move to a safer neighborhood. In 1990, he left his wife and Brighton Beach behind, and headed south.
In America, Miami had become the Russian mob’s second city. Like Brighton Beach, it had a large Russian immigrant population. In the early 1970s, the Miami Beach Police Department began to notice that an inordinate number of Russian émigré taxi drivers were committing criminal acts. These Russians didn’t fit the cops’ preconceived notion of crooks, however. “They were always neatly dressed and very clean-cut and gave the appearance of wanting to fit in and learn the American way of life,” says a federal law enforcement report, written in 1994. Gradually, the Miami police learned that these taxi drivers were involved in many of the same crimes that had made the Italian Mafia so powerful: extortion, narcotics, gambling, and prostitution. “They were a very tight group of criminals who had a code of silence that even the threat of arrest could not break,” the report added.
By the 1980s, the Miami Beach police noted that crimes involving Russian criminals were growing craftier; their schemes, more involved – well-organized narcotics trafficking, burglary and counterfeiting rings, and sophisticated bank and jewelry frauds. Even as the Russian mobsters graduated to white-collar crime, a continuing influx of Russians allowed them to control the streets. “Russian Organized Crime is a new and serious threat to South Florida,” warned the 1994 report. “This is a well-educated group of active, young criminals.”
By the time that Tarzan arrived in Florida, the Russians pouring in were not the taxi-driving sort. “Miami was a boomtown for the Russian mob, which came after perestroika with the hundreds of millions they had looted during privatization,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Diana Fernandez. They used their vast war chest to buy row after row of pricey condominiums in North Beach, and paid tens of millions more for the gated mansions on Fisher Island, the city’s most fashionable residential area. Many of the buyers were high-ranking Russian military officers and ex-KGB officials. “These were the people who held together the Evil Empire,” one real estate agent said. “These were the assassins and the spies.” The Versace-clad Russians loved the balmy, palm-studded tropics, where each new day brought the potential for a multimillion-dollar score. Who needed a shvitz in a century-old, grime-encrusted Brighton Beach bathhouse when wiseguys could go for a steam and a sit-down at the dégagé Art Deco Hotel Delano’s rooftop spa, and maybe even spy a movie star? In Miami, the Russians found their ideal dacha: a base for money laundering that was also close to South American cocaine. “Porky’s became the focal point where Russian gangsters could get their bearings when they came to South Florida,” said Fernandez.
Tarzan had opened Porky’s with the help of William Seidle, whom he latched on to shortly after arriving in Miami. Seidle, a seventy-one-year-old, longtime Floridian, owns a hugely profitable Nissan dealership, as well as the largest Suzuki dealership in America, and is said in Russian mob circles to have a criminal lineage that could be traced to Meyer Lansky, the mobster who once boasted that the Mafia was bigger than U.S. Steel. According to Brighton Beach gangster Vladimir Ginzberg, the Russian mobsters, out of deference, call the energetic, silver-haired Seidle Stariyk, the Russian word for “old man.” (Seidle denies that he knew Lansky or has ever done business with organized crime.) Brent Eaton, a veteran DEA agent, says that Seidle has been under investigation by numerous federal agencies for more than twenty years, although he has never been indicted. “Bill Seidle is a great guy,” William Lehman, a former Democratic congressman, told me. Lehman, who represented South Florida for twenty years, said Seidle “enjoyed Tarzan’s outrageousness. I’ve know Bill for fifty years and he’s always run a kosher business. There are no blemishes.”
Seidle took a shine to Tarzan the moment they met. “Tarzan was a boisterous, big-mouthed Yiddel,” Seidle told me in a Yiddish drawl, one hot, buggy day in Miami. “He’s a Jewboy, you know. Just a big-mouth kid, always bragging, boisterous, but very nice, very kind … I would describe him as a very, very dear friend. I was close to him. He was close to our family. They loved Tarzan. They think a lot of him. They still feel the same.”
Seidle saw in Tarzan a younger version of himself: a bold risk-taker, not adverse to crossing the line. The men decided that there was a lot of money to be made in the “pussy” business so Seidle staked the young Russian to Porky’s for a hidden share of the off-the-book profits, assert court documents. Seidle admits only that he collected rent from the club as its landlord, and he denies receiving club profits.
Tarzan’s criminal ambitions did not stop with Porky’s. According to government wiretap affidavits, Tarzan cultivated vast fields of hemp in the Everglades, with giant grow lights and a landing strip. Tarzan boasted to at least two government undercover agents that he was using aircraft to ferry in tons of marijuana from Jamaica. He allegedly even recruited his geeky-looking younger brother, Alex, to mule seven large, green garbage bags stuffed with marijuana from New York City to Porky’s. “Alex was so afraid of being robbed that immediately after receiving the drugs, he spent the night in a New York City hotel rather than at his own home; he then drove the entire trip without stopping for the night because he was convinced that he would be apprehended carrying the drugs,” asserts a federal wiretap affidavit.
Marijuana was, for Tarzan, a gateway drug. Before long, he had moved on to cocaine. At the time, the Russian Mafiya had little contact with the Colombian drug cartels, though they were eager to remedy that failing. Tarzan helped forge a connection, brokering cocaine deals between the Colombians and the most powerful mob family in St. Petersburg. In one instance, according to the DEA, he smuggled more than one hundred kilos of cocaine in crates of freeze-dried shrimp that were flown from Guayaquil, Ecuador, to St. Petersburg. He also ran coke directly out of Miami, a charge he hotly denies. The street price for cocaine in Russia was $60,000 per kilo; for every kilo, Tarzan made a thousand dollars.
Tarzan’s principal link to the Colombians came through two men, Juan Almeida and Fernando Birbragher. Almeida, thirty-seven years old and the son of a Portuguese-born Miami real estate and construction mogul, had been a major cocaine dealer since the mid-1980s. He supervised the tricky contacts with the Colombian drug cartels using his luxury car rental shops, a posh marina, and other businesses he owned as covers for his illicit activities. Birbragher, meanwhile, was a Colombian and a friend of Seidle, and had had excellent ties to the Cali cartel. In 1982, he admitted in a plea bargain that he had washed $54 million for them. “Birbragher was very close friends with Pablo Escobar,” says the DEA’s Brent Eaton. “He [Birbragher] used to buy him [Escobar] sports cars and luxury boats and do a lot of other things for him.” Top DEA officials assert that Birbragher also laundered drug money for Manuel Noriega, the former Panamanian leader, who was convicted in 1992 of drug trafficking.
Working closely with Almeida, who assured him that they wouldn’t run afoul of the law as long as they didn’t sell drugs in America, Tarzan vaulted, precociously, to the top tier of his profession. His cocaine business was doing so well that he found himself fending off hostile takeovers from other Russian mobsters eager to exploit the new cocaine trade with the Colombians. One of them was the man in charge of Ivankov’s street operations in the United States, who tried to move in on Tarzan’s thriving business shortly after the vor’s arrest. His name was Alexander Bor, otherwise known as Timoka. During a sit-down at the Russian banya, or bathhouse, at Miami’s Castle Beach Hotel, Tarzan turned the tables on Timoka, declaring that he wanted Timoka to pay him $15,000 a month in protection money to do business in Miami. “Get fucked,” Timoka sneered.
Luckily for Tarzan, Timoka made a grave error while in Miami when he put out the word that he was looking for professional hit men to rub out the two New York-based FBI agents who had captured Ivankov. A snitch passed the death threats on to the FBI, which put so much heat on Timoka that he abandoned his recently built $500,000 house in Massapequa, Long Island, and fled to Germany.
Unchallenged, Tarzan proudly sat astride a dominion of crime, smugly holding court for visiting Russian dons, who often sought relief in Miami from the vicious mob wars raging at home. One of the most powerful dons was Anzor Kikalishvili, who bragged over an FBI wire that he had more than six hundred “soldiers” in South Florida. In May 1994, Tarzan introduced Kikalishvili to the owners of a local bagel shop and deli. Kikalishvili, flaunting gold chains, gold rings, and an Armani suit, bragged about his powerful Mafiya connections in Moscow. He then “persuaded” the couple to sell him 49 percent of the deli for a very low price, and to pay him $25,000 every month, for his protection. “That’s how it’s done in Russia,” he said. Terrified, the owners sold their share of the deli for $50,000, a fraction of its worth. Three months later, Kikalishvili visited the couple and ordered them to buy the restaurant back for $450,000. He assured them that if he left their home empty-handed, there would be an additional $100,000 penalty, and warned that he could “find them anywhere in the world and skin them like an animal.” The couple fled in terror to Canada with their children. Tarzan took over the deli with Kikalishvili as his silent partner.
After extortion, Tarzan’s second favorite sport was degrading women. He once bound onto Porky’s stage during a burlesque show and dove into the muff of a blond stripper. He was arrested for performing a “lewd and lascivious” act, and fined $250. In his defense, Tarzan claimed that the stripper had opened her legs “a little more than the law allows.” In an incident filmed by the FBI from the roof of a building across the street from Porky’s, Tarzan chased a dancer out of the club and knocked her cold. On another occasion, he slammed a dancer to the ground in Porky’s parking lot, stomped on her face, and forced her to eat gravel. He once beat his mistress’s head against the steering wheel of his Mercedes until the space under the gas pedal pooled with blood. After he impregnated another woman, he ordered his cousin to threaten to slit her throat if she didn’t have an abortion. He also regularly abused his common-law wife, Faina, a frail, thirty-three-year-old beauty. When the police arrived at their home in response to 911 calls, she’d quiver in fear, sometimes huddled inside a locked car with her daughter. Faina never pressed charges, however. In 1997, a few minutes after dropping her daughter off at day care, Faina was killed when her car plowed into a tree traveling at a speed of more than 90 miles an hour in a 30-mile-per-hour zone. Her blood alcohol level was double the legal limit. The coroner’s office ruled that the death was an accident, although the feds initially suspected that Tarzan had murdered Faina and arranged her death to look like an accident.
Tarzan denied that he killed Faina, but conceded that his behavior drove her to her death. If that behavior perturbed him, however, he didn’t show it, but rather bragged that he was a sex machine, and Faina couldn’t accommodate it. For instance, he claims he owned a “couples club” where he often spent evenings servicing wives in front of their voyeuristic husbands. He’d take out four or five buxom strippers at a time sailing on his thirty-four-foot yacht; while his baby daughter scooted around the galley, the adults orgied. He boasted that he could thumb through any adult magazine – Hustler, Playboy, Penthouse – “call my agent, get the girl to the club, and then take her out and fuck her brains out. … You can’t believe the ego boost this gives you. I was addicted to sex.”
Meanwhile, Tarzan and Juan Almeida saw a way to get even tighter with the Colombians – by hooking them up with Russian gear. They had access to Russian military hardware, from aircraft to armored personnel carriers to submarines. Such goods were shockingly easy to come by in the armed forces of the former Soviet empire if you knew who to talk to. Russian armories, stored in physically deteriorating facilities, and guarded by indifferent, bribable soldiers, were easy pickings for the Mafiya.13
On Halloween day 1992, Tarzan traveled to Latvia, where he told the Colombians that he had Russian organized crime contacts who could help him procure six heavy-lift Russian military helicopters for Pablo Escobar, who wanted the machines to ferry chemicals to jungle labs that refined coke. Tarzan bragged to DEA undercover agents that Seidle financed 10 percent of the trip, an assertion Seidle denies. Tarzan was escorted by Almeida, Fernando Birbragher, and a host of Colombian and Cuban cutthroats.
The trip was a bust, and Almeida and Birbragher blamed it on Tarzan. “Tarzan is an idiot,” Almeida told me with disgust. “He didn’t know anybody.”
But in mid-1993 Tarzan scored in Moscow. According to the DEA, he and Almeida succeeded in purchasing up to six MI8 Russian military helicopters for $1 million each. Tarzan later boasted to government undercover agents that he had bought the helicopters to traffic coke for “Colombian drug barons” headed by Pablo Escobar, and, after the deal was completed, he stayed behind in Moscow to oversee the final details. At the request of the Colombians, the helicopters’ seats were removed and fuel bladders were added to extend their range, Tarzan later told a government undercover agent. With everything set, Tarzan escorted the helicopters to an airport outside Moscow. But just as they were being loaded into the belly of a cargo plane bound for Bogotá, according to one of the key participants, half a dozen jeeps carrying men armed with automatic weapons roared onto the tarmac, encircling the transport. Tarzan was ordered to disgorge his precious shipment immediately. He had foolishly neglected to pay the local airport Mafiya for permission to purchase the helicopters. They threatened to kill him for it. He was hauled into a conference room at the airport to meet the two main mobsters. “They were like heavy weightlifters,” he told me. “Their shorts were small on them. They were incredible hulks. I was in deep shit.” But the Colombians held a certain mystique for the Russians, and by alluding to his close connections with them Tarzan was able to buy some valuable time.
Desperate, Tarzan called Anzor Kikalishvili in Miami. Kikalishvili said he’d make some calls and try to smooth things over, but Tarzan would have to explain why he hadn’t cut the “boys” in for a share. In another series of frantic transatlantic phone calls, Tarzan related the mess to a smoldering Almeida. Almeida advised Tarzan to tell the Russians that the helicopters were for the legendary head of the Medellin cartel, Pablo Escobar, and that no one had told him that he was required to pay a bribe to get the equipment. Tarzan and Almeida hoped that the Russians, who still had little direct experience with the Colombians and the cocaine trade, might make an exception for Escobar – especially since Tarzan had dangled the carrot of future cocaine deals. If Escobar wanted the choppers, they replied, he’d have to show his face in Moscow and recover them himself.
Almeida decided that the only way to retrieve the helicopters – and save Tarzan – was to go to Moscow posing as Pablo Escobar. At Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow, Almeida was welcomed by a motorcade of thick-necked men driving big black Mercedes. He was escorted like a head of state to a five-star hotel in the center of the city, and led into a dark-paneled room, where more thick-necked men sat around a long conference table. Almeida walked past them to the head of the table where the don presided. There was a nervous silence. Suddenly, the Russian seized him in a bear hug, and cried, “Pablo, Pablo Escobar. What took you so long? Let’s do some real shit. Cocaine.”
To celebrate their new friendship, the Russians took Almeida and Tarzan out for a night on the town. They went to a dingy boxing ring called the Kamikaze Club, where chain-smoking mobsters and their girlfriends, dressed in American designer gowns, had gathered to watch a match. Young men dressed in street clothes were led into the ring. Mafiya rules: only one could walk out alive. Blood spattered the crowd as spectators placed bets on their favorite combatant, and swilled vodka. In order to show that he was a high roller, Almeida ordered Tarzan to bet $500 on every fight, which was a lot of money in Russia at the time. The spectacle went on through the night. There was no air-conditioning in the club and the stench of blood, Tarzan says, nearly made him vomit. Mortally injured boxers, their mouths half open, their ribs broken, were dragged from the mat and dumped in a landfill somewhere outside the city. The following day, Tarzan was permitted to fly the valuable cargo out of Moscow. Tarzan claims that the helicopters were immediately delivered to the drug barons.
13 Russian military matériel moving through organized crime channels has already begun to result in the spread of former Soviet weapons to militants, nationalists, and criminals throughout the world, says a confidential threat assessment report about the Russian Mafiya prepared by the U.S. Department of Energy. In the first half of 1992, 25,000 firearms were reported missing from military depots, including 2,000 AK series rifles, AK-74SU assault carbines, and medium and heavy support weapons. In December 1992, police seized 768 firearms, including seven grenade launchers, 574 submachine guns, and 159 pistols. Near the Black Sea port of Adler, police detained a high-speed boat carrying two missile launchers, a machine gun, two grenade launchers, and four submachine guns.
In 1997, two Lithuanians linked to the Russian mob were arrested in Miami trying to sell tactical nuclear weapons and Bulgarian-made shoulder-held antiaircraft missiles to U.S. Customs undercover agents posing as drug smugglers. The Lithuanians were caught on audio- and videotape negotiating the sale in a series of meetings in seedy hotels in London and Miami. The Customs agents didn’t have the $330,000 asking price for the antiaircraft missiles, so the mobsters sold the weapons to Iran.
Russian mobsters have also attempted to traffic weapons-grade fissionable material, using a global distribution network to smuggle it to renegade states and drug cartels, say officials from the Energy Department, the FBI, and the CIA. There have been at least sixteen cases in which police have interdicted plutonium or highly enriched uranium coming out of the former Soviet bloc since 1992. In one instance, approximately six pounds of fissionable material stolen from Russia was seized in Prague in December 1994. On September 24, 1999, a cache of stolen uranium was intercepted by Georgian authorities near the Georgian-Turkish border.
Tarzan’s crime wave was not passing unnoticed back in the United States. Alarmed at the scale and rapid expansion of his and other Russian mobsters’ operations, the state of Florida and a slew of federal law enforcement agencies, working with liaison officers from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the German Federal Police, and the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, set up a task force called Operation Odessa to try to stem the criminal red tide.
Operation Odessa’s guiding force was a Russian-born sergeant on the Miami police force, who posed as a corrupt undercover narcotics cop. He had succeeded in winning the mob’s confidence, infiltrating some of its most closely guarded sit-downs. What he discovered horrified him. In a few short years the Russians, through an unprecedented combination of brains, brawn, and chutzpah, had replaced the Gambino family, which had been decimated by years of relentless prosecutions, as one of the top crime groups in South Florida. “Their obvious sophistication far exceeds that of the La Cosa Nostra at its infant stage,” the bearded, professorial Miami assistant U.S. attorney Richard Gregory, one of Operation Odessa’s founders, told me in Miami. “Tarzan was the original top Russian figure in Miami as far as law enforcement was concerned.”
Operation Odessa’s agents had so far been unable to infiltrate Tarzan’s close-knit world. That assignment fell to Tarzan’s old friend from Brighton Beach, Grecia Roizes, who had by this time acquired his nickname “the Cannibal.” (A booking sergeant in Brooklyn had called him “a fucking dirty Jew,” and he’d bitten off the tip of the man’s nose.)
Roizes had also acquired a debt to the DEA. In 1992, he was arrested in Romania for trafficking heroin for Boris Nayfeld’s French Connection-sized operation based in Antwerp. Rather than rot in a Romanian prison, where he claimed to have been beaten and denied his heart medication, the Cannibal made a deal with the DEA. First, he ratted on the members of the heroin-smuggling operation, helping the feds shut it down. After that, the DEA dispatched him to the Adriatic port town of Fano, Italy, where he became partners with his longtime friend Monya Elson. Elson was running a vast money laundering business out of a furniture store for Semion Mogilevich. Thanks to the Cannibal, Elson was arrested by Italian authorities in 1995. He was held for murder, money laundering, drug trafficking, and for having ties to the Italian mob. “They kept me in total isolation for eighteen months,” Elson bitterly complained. “Five times a day, seven days a week, they shook my cell. They drove me nuts. I never spoke on the phone. I never had an American or Russian newspaper. Psychologically, they destroyed me.”
While Elson was incommunicado, the Cannibal’s next assignment was in Miami. He had no trouble getting close to Tarzan. “The Cannibal and I were like brothers,” Tarzan told me. “We grew up in the same town in the Ukraine and lived on the same street in Israel. Our families were close. He’s the one who helped me when I arrived in Brighton Beach. He loved me.”
Using $72,000 in cash supplied by the DEA, the Cannibal bought a managing partnership in Tarzan’s restaurant Babushka. Situated in one of Miami’s many strip malls, Babushka had a loyal following among Russian émigrés who were homesick for borscht, caviar, and kabobs. A local reviewer once described Babushka’s staff as “direct from Petrograd central casting. … A man/bear who resembles a general. A Ural-sized cook. A Rasputin-look-alike waiter.
But even in this theme park of a Russian mob joint, the Cannibal’s conduct stood out as ostentatious and vulgar. Not only did he bring in his friends, flirt with the waitresses, and pay for everything on the house, but he seemed to be trying to bring Babushka down, according to Paul, a slender, Russian-born piano player and songwriter who performed at Babushka with his wife, Nelli, a singer.
“On New Year’s Eve, he came in drunk and high on cocaine, and was crude and loud,” said Paul. “His behavior was unbelievably bad. New Year’s Eve is a big, big celebration for the Russians. They buy presents, new clothes, jewelry. He had nothing ready for the restaurant.” Babushka’s New Year’s Eve parties were renowned for generous spreads of seafood, caviar, grilled meats, plenty of champagne and vodka, and great Russian music. “For 250 people, we had fewer than a hundred lobsters, almost no shrimp, no bread. There was almost no food on the table. Some people left at 12:30, 1:00 A.M. I said to Tarzan, ‘You let him be partner for this?’ And Tarzan said, ‘I’m desperate for money.’
“Tarzan had a big boat,” Paul went on. “I’m the only one who knew how to use the fishing rod. One day the three of us” – Tarzan, Paul, and the Cannibal – “were going fishing, and I said we needed to buy lines and hooks. We went into a bait shop and the Cannibal didn’t buy too much. He got on the boat and he emptied his pockets, which were filled with lines, hooks, all kinds of things which he had stolen,” including a fisherman’s cap. “My face went red. He said, Ah, I always do it. It’s fun for me.’”
Paul and Nelli weren’t the only ones who were disturbed by the Cannibal’s corrosive presence. The Brooklynite gangster Vladimir Ginzberg, who, according to court documents, was a key operative in Tarzan’s large-scale cigarette bootlegging operation on the East Coast, had repeatedly alerted Tarzan that the Cannibal was working for the feds.
“I warned Tarzan about the rumors – that he did in Elson, and the others,” Ginzberg said. “Tarzan didn’t listen. So I asked Tarzan why he trusted him. He said they were both from the same town. He knew his father. He had his friends checked out. And he had a cruel criminal past. That counts for a lot. And Tarzan didn’t have a comparable past – and Tarzan wasn’t so smart. He had steroids for brains. He had a big-muscle peanut brain.”
With Tarzan’s confidence secured, the Cannibal began his work. One day, a man named Alexander Yasevich walked into Babushka. The Cannibal embraced him like a long-lost comrade. “Hey, how ya doing?” he said over hugs and kisses. Tarzan, who was in the restaurant, sauntered over to meet the stranger. Tarzan recognized Yasevich from the old neighborhood in Brighton Beach. Yasevich had moved there from Odessa as a teen. But unbeknownst to Tarzan, Yasevich had joined the Marines, and then became an undercover agent for the DEA.
“The agent’s cover was that he was an arms dealer and heroin dealer out of New York,” says Miami-based DEA spokesperson Pam Brown, who was once part of an elite squad that interdicted drugs in the jungles of Peru and Colombia. “Tarzan immediately started running his mouth, telling him what a big shot he was, that he and his associates had politicians in their pockets.” Many of their gab fests were on Tarzan’s boat or in upscale restaurants. The men consumed a prodigious amount of a volatile concoction of ice-cold vodka and Japanese saki poured over a raw quail’s egg. The first time Yasevich’s girlfriend, who was also an undercover agent, drank the potion, she puked.
The drinking and kibitzing paid off. Yasevich learned that Tarzan was in the midst of executing his biggest caper yet: the purchase of a $100 million, Soviet-era, diesel-powered submarine for Pablo Escobar.
When Tarzan was first asked to procure the submarine, it unnerved him. The Russian helicopters had nearly cost him his life. But this time, he made sure to clear the deal through Anzor Kikalishvili, and he traveled to the former Soviet Union with Almeida dozens of times, looking for a submarine. Finally, through the most powerful crime boss in St. Petersburg, they met corrupt, high-ranking Russian military officers who took them to the front gate of Kronstadt, a sprawling naval base in the Baltic, where numerous untended diesel submarines bobbed on their sides, spewing waste into the polluted ocean. Anything is available in Russia, former CIA official Richard Palmer told me. The Soviet fleet is rotting and the sailors haven’t been paid for months.
Initially, the Miamians wanted to buy a huge attack submarine for the Colombians’ East Coast drug trade. But a retired Russian captain told them they should instead operate on the Pacific Coast, where America’s anti-submarine net was less effective. He suggested that they buy a small, diesel-powered Piranha-class submarine, which is made of titanium and is much quieter. The Piranhas, with a range of one thousand kilometers, are used to plant saboteurs, troops, and spies behind enemy lines. The captain told Tarzan that he had slipped the submarine past the Americans during the Cuban missile crisis.
They finally agreed on a ninety-foot-long Foxtrot-class attack submarine that drug lords calculated could carry up to forty tons of cocaine. The Colombians planned to base the sub, which would be demilitarized and retrofitted to resemble an océanographie research vessel, in Panama. From there, it would transport the drugs underwater to a mother ship near San Diego and outside the United States’s territorial waters. The mother ship would then deliver the coke to ports along the Pacific coast. A consortium of St. Petersburg mobsters and two active-duty admirals wanted $20 million for the vessel, which was built in 1992 for $100 million. Tarzan negotiated its price down to $5.5 million, of which he was to take home $1 million. The Russians wanted the money passed through a dummy company in Europe in order to give the Russian politicians who okayed the purchase plausible deniability. Tarzan hired the retired captain for $500 a month and secured a crew of seventeen for a two-year contract. Tarzan even got permission to take several photographs of the vessel to send to the Colombians. At a party at a dacha, the godfather of St. Petersburg, a man called Misha, made a side deal with Tarzan to procure cocaine from Miami for $30,000 a kilo, far above Tarzan’s $4,000 cost. To Tarzan, everything looked good.
On Tuesday, January 21, 1997, just after Tarzan dropped off his daughter at the William and Miriam Tauber Day Care Center, he was stopped in his gleaming white 1996 Jaguar convertible by a marked Metro-Dade Police Department vehicle in the Aventura area of Miami. As he spoke with the officers, DEA agent Brent Eaton and Detective Joseph McMahon, who had been trailing him in an unmarked car, approached. Eaton and McMahon introduced themselves and invited him to join them in their car. They told Tarzan that he was in trouble and would be arrested. They asked him to take a ride with them to a secure location, where they and a few other officers could speak with him confidentially about his predicament. Tarzan agreed, saying, “I’m a nicer person than you probably thought. I haven’t done anything wrong.”
When they arrived at the interview site, a DEA training room near Miami International Airport, Tarzan was offered a seat at a table and given a cup of coffee. He was not handcuffed or restrained in any manner. Michael McShane, a DEA inspector, offered him a chance to work with the government rather than be arrested. Tarzan replied that he could be very useful to the government, but was not well acquainted with U.S. laws and preferred to consult with his attorney before making a decision. Eaton told Tarzan that wasn’t a wise decision since his lawyer represented other targets of the investigation. “I thought you would tell me what you have and ask me questions,” Tarzan said, according to a transcript of the interrogation. “I don’t know what to say because I don’t know what you think I have done.”
McMahon asked Tarzan if he had ever bought liquor for Porky’s or for Babushka from any source other than a legitimate wholesaler or liquor store. “Never?” Tarzan declared emphatically.
“What about your relationship with Anzor Kikalishvili?” the detective asked.
“Anzor, I know nothing about what he does in Russia,” Tarzan claimed. “I met him at my club. He is a sex maniac, always looking for girls. I helped him once when he opened a bagel store in Aventura.” Tarzan did admit that he had once picnicked with Kikalishvili.
“Tell us about your activities with Juan Almeida,” McMahon said
“I don’t know what he is up to,” Tarzan said. “He speaks Spanish most of the time.”
“You mean you travel all over the world with Almeida and you don’t know what he’s up to?”
“Yes,” Tarzan replied.
“You know that those airplanes and helicopters you get go to Colombian drug traffickers,” McMahon said angrily.
“They go to legitimate people,” Tarzan insisted.
When the officers accused him of lying, Tarzan replied, “Maybe I should go to jail, then find out what you have.” The agents had had enough. They handcuffed him, placed him under arrest, and drove him to the DEA processing room, where he was fingerprinted, photographed, and allowed to call his attorney.
Almeida surrendered to the authorities several days later. Not only had Tarzan talked about his activities with Almeida to various undercover agents, but he had even introduced Almeida to Yasevich, the DEA undercover agent, at La Carreta restaurant, in Miami. At the time, Almeida told the agent that he represented a client with unlimited funds who was interested in buying a Russian diesel submarine for illicit purposes, although he said with a laugh that the vessel was going to be used to transport stolen gold from the Philippines. Almeida, a suave man with a salesman’s charm, told me the sub was intended for an underwater museum in South Florida. After he was arrested, his lawyer, Roy Black, said that the sub was intended to carry tourists around the Galápagos Islands. As for the Russian helicopters, Almeida claimed the aircraft were actually contracted by Helitaxi, a legitimate Bogota-based company, to do heavy lifting at oil rigs in South America. Helitaxi’s president, Byron López, is banned from the United States by the State Department because he has allegedly laundered money for drug lords.
The investigation produced 530 wiretapped conversations in Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Spanish. On the tapes and in conversations with the undercover agents, Tarzan constantly implicated himself and others in numerous crimes. “We caught Tarzan bragging to our undercover agent about how he was hooked up with the Colombian drug lords, and how everything he was doing was for Colombian drug lords, and that he was getting the submarine for the same people that he got the helicopters for,” DEA agent Eaton says. “A lot of that is on tape.”
Louis Terminello, Tarzan’s civil lawyer, insists that the only thing that Tarzan is guilty of is having a big mouth. “It’s the high school kid who wants the high school girl to believe that he’s got the biggest dick in the world.”
After months of sullen denial, Tarzan decided to cooperate. “He’s admitted to everything,” DEA agent Pam Brown told me several months after his arrest. “He keeps saying, ‘Well, this would have all been legal in Russia.’” For eleven months, Tarzan was kept in the snitch ward at Miami’s Federal Detention Center blabbing about Russian mobsters and Latino drug lords. After negotiating at least six proffer agreements, the galled feds cut him loose to stand trial. Not only couldn’t they corroborate much of his information, but he said that he would never testify unless he was released on bail. There was little likelihood of that happening. The feds had a good idea what Tarzan would do: a government wiretap picked up several powerful Israeli drug dealers in Miami discussing plans to help Tarzan flee to Israel, which does not extradite its nationals.
Finally, Tarzan, who faced a possible life sentence, pleaded guilty to racketeering charges, including conspiracy to sell cocaine, heroin, and a submarine, and sundry other crimes. He testified against Almeida – who was convicted of importing and distributing cocaine and attempting to buy a Russian submarine for Colombian drug kingpins to further the drug conspiracy. (The charge of purchasing heavy-lift helicopters for the Colombians was dropped.) “Tarzan’s big mouth ruined my life,” Almeida says mournfully. According to a well-placed government source, Almeida, who is awaiting sentencing, has taken out contracts on the judge and the prosecution team.
As for the man who helped the feds the most, Grecia Roizes, the Cannibal, looked as if he had not a care in the world as he stood erect, his Popeye-like arms bulging through a lime green knit polo shirt, calmly awaiting sentencing in the ornate marble courthouse in lower Manhattan. On July 8, 1998, Federal District Court Judge John Keenan waived his jail time as a reward for services rendered to the government, and Cannibal set up a furniture business outside Naples, Italy.
About a year later, Roizes was in trouble again: he was arrested by the Italian police in Bologna for associating with the Italian Mafia, money laundering, extortion, kidnapping, and smuggling. Most of his victims were small-time Russian entrepreneurs in Italy. Some of his illicit gains were allegedly passed through the Bank of New York. Apparently, while working for the DEA, the Cannibal had also been running a thriving criminal empire in Italy.
The Russian mob in South Florida today is the hub of a sophisticated and ruthless operation. But Ludwig Fainberg is no longer a participant. On October 14, 1999, after living in America for seventeen years, Tarzan was deported to Israel, with $1,500 in his pocket. He had served a mere thirty-three month prison term. His light sentence was in return for his cooperation, which reportedly included providing intelligence on several alleged Russian mob heavyweights.
Even as he awaited deportation, Tarzan’s enthusiasm was irrepressible. “I love this country!” he told me. “It’s so easy to steal here!” He was already cooking up a new scheme. “I’m going to Cuba,” he said. “A few of my Russian friends already own resorts there.” He said that with what he knows about the sex industry hell soon be rich again.
Donetsk, a bleak industrial city in the southeast corner of Ukraine, is not known for producing worldclass hockey players. And when Oleg Tverdovsky, a scrawny seven-year-old, tried out for a local peewee team in 1983, he didn’t show much promise: his ankles were weak – the result of a joint-swelling disease called Reiter’s syndrome – and he was one of the worst skaters in the bunch. At first, he didn’t even like the sport much. Still, a coach spied some potential in him and encouraged the boy to keep at it.
He did. By sixteen, Tverdovsky had blossomed into one of the highest-scoring defensemen in Russia, playing for a team called the Soviet Wings. But with the fall of communism, Soviet hockey also began a steady collapse. Arena freezers frequently broke down, melting the ice. Stadiums that once drew five thousand fans were lucky to lure several hundred. “People had a lot of problems in their lives,” recalls Tverdovsky. “Hockey tickets are not very expensive, but if you can’t feed your family, well, you don’t think about going to a hockey game.”
Like most of Russia’s best players, Tverdovsky was eventually discovered by NHL scouts, and in 1994, at the tender age of eighteen, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim made him their first-round draft pick. He had awesome power and blazing speed, drawing comparisons to Bobby Orr – all the right stuff, said the scouts, to become a superstar. “I was excited to get drafted,” he remembered. “To play with the best players in the world.” When he arrived in Anaheim, he bought himself a house and a sports car. After a fine rookie season, he was traded to the Winnipeg Jets and signed a three-year deal worth some $4.2 million, a staggering sum for a young man whose countrymen were earning an average of $74 per month.
Tverdovsky’s prosperity did not go unnoticed, however. One night, a former Russian hockey coach of Tverdovsky turned up on his California doorstep and demanded a share of his good fortune. The young phenom was terrified, for he knew, as did everyone in Russia, that hockey in the former Soviet Union was overrun by the Mafiya, and that it frequently brought its sadistic extortion methods to bear on successful players. “They’ll take out a whole family,” said a U.S. law enforcement official who specializes in the Russian mob. “But they’ll torture victims first to send out a message – they’ll cut off fingers, use acid, decapitate heads. It’s gruesome.”
In fact, the Russian mob’s sinister grip on sports in the Soviet bloc dates back to well before communism’s demise. In the Soviet era, sports stars – along with singers, artists, apparatchiks, and black marketeers – were all part of the Soviet Union’s privileged elite. In this heavily criminalized society top athletes and mobsters sought out one another’s company to mutually enhance their image and prestige. They ate at the same choice restaurants, vacationed together at luxurious spas, and dated the same women. They also did business together. “The Mafiya has made the sports business one of its sources of revenue,” a Russian sports historian has said. “Bribes, extortion, and killings are common.”
Hockey – one of Russia’s most popular sports – was no exception. From the small-town peewee leagues up to the powerhouse national teams, the Mafiya, by force or cooperation, had penetrated every level of the enterprise, just as it had most other businesses in Russia. “Many local teams in Russia are associated with the mob,” said a Western law enforcement source, noting that they often used them for money laundering, as well as for many other illicit profits that could be sucked from stadium contracts, concessions, equipment procurement, ticket sales, player and management salaries, and tens of millions of dollars of untaxed vodka and cigarettes that the government gave to the teams.
When communism fell, the former Soviet Union’s rich reservoir of hockey talent – the same players who had so often demonstrated their astonishing skills against the world in the Olympics – suddenly became available to the West. The NHL’s U.S. and Canadian teams went on a buying binge, snapping up the country’s current and future superstars, signing players like Tverdovsky to extraordinarily lucrative contracts. But the NHL teams discovered soon enough that they weren’t importing only expert skaters and stickhandlers; they were also importing the brutal extortionists and gun-toters of the Russian Mafiya who followed in their wake. “Hockey in the former Soviet Union is controlled by Russian organized crime,” said a top FBI official. “They control the players who play there and they control the players who play here. They can stay in Russia and make 2,000 rubles a year or kick back $1 million of a $2 million American contract.”
Although Tverdovsky was well aware that being in America did not guarantee his safety, he nevertheless refused the Russian coach’s demands to be paid off. But the gangsters did not come for him. Instead, on January 30, 1996, four goons – carrying a tear gas pistol, handcuffs, and a snapshot of Tverdovsky’s forty-six-year-old mother, Alexandra – seized his parents outside an apartment building in Donetsk, where they had gone to visit relatives. Tverdovsky received a message from his father: the gangsters wanted $200,000 for his mother’s safe return.
While his mother sat imprisoned in a dank apartment outside Donetsk, Tverdovsky suffered severe anxiety, causing his ankles to swell up. “I had a terrible time,” recalled the lanky, six-foot player during an interview at a Tex-Mex café across the street from the hockey stadium in Phoenix, where he then played for the Coyotes. “I didn’t have many details about what was going on.” Still, he didn’t inform team or league officials about his ordeal, nor did he reveal his problem to his own teammates, fearing that, if word leaked out, his mother would be killed. “We [Russian players] won’t even tell each other” about extortion plots, said Tverdovsky. “Not even our best Russian friends.”
A few days later the kidnappers escorted Alexandra Tverdovsky onto a train bound for Moscow, confident that they were on their way to make a trade for a few suitcasesful of cash. Suddenly, in a rare case of Russian law enforcement competence, the police stormed the train and rescued the captive, arresting all four kidnappers in the process. Tverdovsky, however, wasn’t taking any more chances. He spirited his parents out of the country and hid them away in a house he bought for them in a town in California that to this day he will not name.
In the NHL, where ex-Eastern bloc players make up 10 percent of team rosters, the list of hockey players who have been secretly shaken down, beaten, and threatened by voracious Russian mobsters reads like a Who’s Who of the NHL. (In a few years that proportion will grow to 40 percent, and most of these players will be tied to the Russian mob, asserts the FBI.) Alexander Mogilny of the Vancouver Canucks, Alexei Zhitnik of the Buffalo Sabres, and Vladimir Malakhov of the Montreal Canadiens have all been targets of extortion. Even Detroit Red Wings superstar Sergei Fedorov was rumored to have had to pay gangsters to be left alone when he first came to America. Mike Barnett, Fedorov’s agent, denies the story, though he admits: “If there was an incident, I probably wouldn’t tell you. It’s not something we would prefer to have publicized.” Still, Fedorov doesn’t go home to Russia unless