In October 1996, during testimony before a congressional committee, FBI Director Louis Freeh spent a good part of his time discussing international organized crime. Freeh, pointing to the FBI’s arrest of one Vyacheslav Ivankov—the reputed “godfather” of the Russian mafia who is now serving a ten-year sentence in a federal pen in New York—emphasized the threat that organized crime from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) posed to American security. Nezavisimaya Gazeta, probably the most widely read newspaper among Russian elites, reported that “this theme”—the global threat represented by the Russian mafia—was “gleefully developed” by Western media, which publishes and broadcasts “more and more menacing details about crimes committed by Russian mafiosi.” The paper’s Aleksandr Sharev further claimed, probably correctly, that the firestorm over the Russian mafia had been ignited by a study published in the United States in 1996 by the Center for Strategic Studies (CSS), which “blew the Russian mafia threat up to almost worldwide dimensions.”
The Russians, ever sensitive to the West’s alleged Russophobia, reacted sharply. Former Minister of Internal Affairs (the MVD, responsible for police and internal troops) Anatoli Kulikov blasted Freeh and the CSS study, claiming that the exaggerated accounts of Russian Al Capones were being spread in order to “isolate Russia politically and economically.” Freeh, in deference to Kulikov, thereafter softened his remarks. But the question of just what, exactly, the “Russian mafia” is, and how big a threat it represents, were never adequately addressed, and the best way to answer these questions is to backtrack along the trail of Ivankov himself—better known, in the FSU underworld, as the ‘Yaponchik” (“the Jap”).
According to the MVD Directorate for the Fight Against Organized Crime, there are over 4,000 organized crime groups operating in the FSU. The organizations vary greatly in size and type. Many are ethnically organized: a Russian, or more exactly. Eastern Slavic (including Belorussians and Ukrainians) mafia does exist, as does a primarily Jewish mafia, an Azeri mafia, a Georgian mafia, and a Chechen mafia (similar in origins and organization to the Sicilian Cosa Nostra). Other gangs are organized operationally: some specialize in trafficking narcotics, others in racketeering, still others in contact murders, money laundering, or arms smuggling. In this milieu, it may be more accurate to call the “Russian” mafia a “Russian-speaking” mafia, whose constituent members sometimes belong primarily to one group but interact and cooperate, either as an organization or as individuals, with other gangs and gangsters. Taken as a whole, the “mafia” is more like a network of criminal organizations than a tightly organized monolith.
According to the MVD, some 174 of these FSU organizations are operating abroad, mainly in the United States, Israel, and Europe. The leader of a gang is called the vor v zakone, an untranslatable term that signified senior status in the age-old loosely organized Russian brotherhood of thieves (vor means “thief” in Russian), and it was into this brotherhood that the young Ivankov was initiated some years ago.
Born in 1940 in Moscow, the child, who would acquire the moniker “Taponchik” because of his narrow, slanted eyes, displayed athletic talent and a violent temper. Constantly in trouble as a result of his fighting, the young Ivankov, who had earlier been trained as an acrobat, took up boxing. (It is a peculiarity of the Soviet era that criminal gangs were often organized in the state-sponsored sports clubs.) The young gang members might first cut their teeth on simple theft, then graduate to higher forms of the criminal arts after a stint in prison, where they often were initiated in the ancient Russian thieves’ brotherhood, where status is determined by the willingness of the young initiate to kill. Ivankov began his criminal career in the 1960’s and served time in the Irkutsk, Magadan, and Tulun prison camps and the dreaded Vladimir Cential prison where he acquired the status of vor v zakone, relentlessly enforcing the brotherhood’s code of conduct (the Yaponchik was reportedly the most feared member of the thieves’ brotherhood) and via corrupt prison officials maintaining contacts with his gangland patrons outside the barbed wire of the camps.
Ivankov’s patrons included the notorious “Mongol,” Gennadi Korkov, the Georgian vor v zakone Otari Kvantrishvili (Kvantrishvili was the Bugsy Siegel of Soviet/FSU gangdom, and his opulent funeral in 1994—which attracted luminaries from business and polidcs, as well as from gangland—might have made Johnny Torrio blush with envy), and Vyacheslav Sliva, with whom the Yaponchik had organized his own gang. Their activities were typical of Soviet-era gangsters: robbing the apartments of jewelers and antique collectors, shaking down black marketeers, and “protecting” illegal gambling and prostitution rings. According to some accounts, the Yaponchik also contracted out his unique services, in this case beatings and murders, to the KGB, who sometimes needed gangsters to perform delicate operations for them. It may have been such contacts that enabled Ivankov to secure an early release from a 14-year prison sentence he received for extortion in 1981. After serving ten years (there is evidence that the Yaponchik, who by this time had emerged as one of the leading figures in the Soviet-era organized crime world, not only operated his criminal empire from within the walls of prison, but lived a life of comparative luxury that many Soviet citizens would have envied), he was released after several prominent public figures pleaded his case to then president Mikhail Gorbachev and then chairman of the Russian Federation Supreme Soviet, Boris Yeltsin. At any rate, the Yaponchik had kept close tabs on the momentous changes going on during the perestroika era and saw opportunities for expansion that had been undreamed of by the famed thieves of the Russian brotherhood’s past.
Yaponchik wanted to modernize the Soviet Union’s underworld, and to do this he first had to deal with the Chechens. During the late Soviet period, the Chechen Cosa Nostra openly operated across Russia and impudently occupied the gigantic Rossiya hotel, whose windows looked out on the citadel of Russian power, the Kremlin (anyone who visited the Rossiya in the late 80’s and earlv 90’s can testify to the sea of black limos, hulking bodyguards, and black-fedoraed Chechen godfathers/clan leaders with their signature black leather jackets and droopy mustaches that encroached on Red Square itself). A relentless war of contract murders, organized by the Yaponchik’s hand-picked man, veteran killer Andrei Isayev, who goes by the name “Rospis” (“Signature”), was waged against the “blacks,” the Caucasian Chechens and Azeris who were moving in on the turf of the Slavic, Georgian, and Jewish gangsters. But this war was also over new opportunities and emerging markets for gang activity: narcotics and control over newly opened casinos, hotels, car dealerships, television stations, and banks. The war continues to this day, with the gangs standing behind—or alongside — many of the “new Russians,” the rising entrepreneurial class of real estate, banking, media, and raw materials (especially oil) magnates. Shakedowns of the “new Russians” were common, but so was—and is—partnership and cooperation. Moreover, the civil wars raging in the corners of what would soon be the FSU opened up vast opportunities for arms trafficking (the Yaponchik is said to have invested heavily in arming participants in the struggle between Azeris and Armenians over Nagorno-Karabakh) and the smuggling of precious metals, including uranium. Moreover, as the Soviet Union began collapsing, the West, with its porous borders and untapped (for the Soviet/FSU mafia, anyway) markets, beckoned the FSU gangs.
By some accounts, the Yaponchik had organized a sort of criminal politburo that sought to resolve conflicts, punish dissenters, and divide up the turf and responsibilities of the organized crime groups. This gangster politburo supposedly sent Ivankov to manage the gangs’ affairs in America. In any case, Ivankov left the Soviet Union in the spring of 1991 on a false passport and made his way illegally to New York City’s Brighton Beach area. Brighton Beach is populated mainly by Russianspeaking immigrants, predominantly Jews, and it was here that Ivankov intimidated, murdered, and formed partnerships with Jewish gangsters. His closest business associates have reportedly been the Zilber brothers of Odessa, Vladimir and Alex. His American-based operation was called the “Organization” (organizatsiya) by insiders, and with it he helped many of his FSU minions enter the United States illegally with false identity papers. He then moved his base to Brooklyn, reportedly establishing solid business partnerships with the Genovese and Gambino mafia families and the Colombian cocaine cartels.
By 1995, the Yaponchik was riding high. The organizatsiya was expanding its operations to New Jersey, Los Angeles, Denver (where Ivankov had a residence), Miami, and Toronto and was even moving into the realm of professional sports: FSU gangsters have allegedly attempted to extort cash from Russian NHL hockey players Alexander Mogilny, Vladimir Malakhov, and Alexei Zhitnik. Moreover, Ivankov illegally visited Russia on several occasions to oversee his operations there.
Ivankov’s arrest in 1995 on an extortion charge and subsequent sentencing to a federal prison may or may not signal the end of his criminal career. In any event, America should take note of his bloody career. First, Ivankov entered, left, and reentered the United States on numerous occasions illegally and was able to build a criminal empire here, acquiring property and consorting with crime bosses in New York, Los Angeles, and Miami—and he did all this without even knowing a word of English! The point is not to exaggerate the threat of the “Russian” mafia or to indulge in Russophobia, but rather to emphasize the laxity of American border controls and the threat posed by the New World Order of open borders, mass immigration, and transnational business.
These transnational gangsters, who now have political influence in their native lands and whose activities diminish the security of our own, love the “global economy.” If the FSU mafia can shift assets across borders, acquire property, and move its members in and out of other states, so can the Colombian cocaine cartels, the Chinese Tongs (remember the little arms deal the Tongs wanted to make with L.A. street gangs?), and Mexican drug traffickers. Moreover, consider this tidbit from Moskovskaya Pravda:
The American Cosa Nostra moved to the United States from Italy, whose population today totals about 58 million, while the population of the former Soviet republics comes to about 289 million! . . . It is clear that a great many significant organized criminal groups exist within this Eurasian population. It is the increased freedom of international travel, business opportunities, and shifting of financial assets that involuntarily facilitates spreading the problem of [FSU] crime to the United States.
As the trail of the Yaponchik clearly shows, America is indeed the Land of Opportunity.