The Russian Mafia Russkaya mafiya) or Bratva (slang for “brotherhood”, which applies to all gangs, including rivals) often transliterated as Mafiya are names designating a diverse group of organized crime syndicates originating in the former Soviet Union, Russia and the CIS. Since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, these groups have amassed considerable worldwide power and influence.They are active in virtually every part of Russian society.Russian criminals are internationally active in illegal oil trade, smuggling of weapons and nuclear material and money laundering.
In December 2009 Timur Lakhonin, the head of the Russian National Central Bureau of Interpol, stated: “Certainly, there is crime involving our former compatriots abroad, but there is no data suggesting that an organized structure of criminal groups comprising former Russians exists abroad”.
Organized crime has existed in Russia since the days of the Czars and Imperial Russia in the form of banditry, pornography, and thievery. In the Soviet period Vory v zakone or “thieves in law” emerged. This class of criminal had to abide by certain rules in the prison system. One such rule was that cooperation with the authorities of any kind was forbidden. During World War II some prisoners made a deal with the government to join the armed forces in return for a reduced sentence, but upon their return to prison they were attacked and killed by inmates who remained loyal to the rules of the thieves.
During the era when the Soviet economy took a downhill turn, the Vory would take control of the black market with the help of corrupt officials, supplying products such as electronics or extra food during the Brezhnev era which were hard to reach for the ordinary Soviet citizen.
1990s and fall of the Soviet Union
The real breakthrough for criminal organizations occurred during the economic disaster and mass emigration of the 1990s that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. Desperate for money, many former government workers turned to crime, others joined the former Soviet citizens who moved overseas, and the Russian Mafia became a natural extension of this trend. Former KGB agents, sportsmen and veterans of the Afghan and First and Second Chechen Wars, now finding themselves out-of-work but with experience in areas which could prove useful in crime, joined the increasing crime wave. Widespread corruption, poverty and distrust of authorities only contributed to the rise of organized crime. Contract killings, Bombings and Kidnappings reached an all-time high with many gangland murders taking place, a substantial number remaining unsolved. By 1993 almost all banks in Russia were owned by the mafia, and 80% of businesses were paying up protection money. In that year 1400 people were murdered in Moscow, crime members killed businessmen who would not pay money to them, reporters, politicians, bank owners and other opposition to them. The new criminal class of Russia took on a more Westernized and businesslike approach to organized crime as the more code-of-honor based Vory faded into extinction. By the late nineties it was believed that Semion Mogilevich (“Don Semyon”) had become the “boss of all bosses” of most Russian Mafia syndicates in the world, and was considered by the FBI to be the most powerful crime-boss on earth.
The former Soviet Bloc’s opening up to the world and the internationalization of its economy also gave the Russian mafia connections to other criminal organizations around the world such as the Chinese Triads or the Sicilian Cosa Nostra. Connections with Latin American drug cartels allowed the Russian mafia to import cocaine into the country. Due to the soviet breakup, thousands of arms were smuggled into the black market. Missiles, anti-aircraft guns, helicopters, tactical assault weapons, were sold to the highest bidders. Submarines were sold to drug lords, as well as illegal sale of uranium and Plutonium on the black market.
Emigration with Jewish identities into Israel and America
Widespread emigration in the 1990s allowed Russian criminal organizations to spread themselves further around the world. Prior to the collapse of communism some limited numbers of Russian Jews were allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union if they could prove they had Jewish descent, and criminals took advantage of this if they were themselves Jewish, acquiring Jewish identity papers to be granted the permission to leave the country that had been granted by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s.citation needed According to a report, 573,000 refugees, mostly Jews, evangelical Christians and Catholics, have resettled in the US since 1975. As of 2001, the Russian Jewish community in the US was estimated as being between 750,000 and 1 million (and twice as high by some other estimates), while “an estimated 1 million more Jews immigrated to Israel” during the collapse of the USSR.
Also, some other non-Jewish individuals and criminals obtained falsified documents in an attempt to prove they had Jewish ancestry, in order to be issued with Jewish identity papers so they could be granted exit-visas to emigrate abroad.citation needed In the United States a key location for Russian organized crime was the Russian-speaking mostly Jewish community of Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, New York.
Emigration with German identities
An estimated 3.5 million Russians emigrated from Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, as these had ethnic German descent from their forefathers that settled in Russia in the 18th century. However, over time these Germans had already assimilated and were considered fully Russian. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Germany opened for these immigrants to receive German citizenship, and thus, Russian organized crime could yet again expand, this time in the European Union.citation needed In 2009 Russians accounted for less than 1% of crimes in Germany, most often not in an organized form.
First major member prosecuted in the US
Vyacheslav “Yaponchik” Ivankov was the first major ethnically Russian organized crime figure prosecuted by the U.S. government, running his extortion operations out of Brighton Beach. Russian organized crime has spread to many other countries as well including Israel, Hungary, Canada, South Africa, Spainand Thailand
- The Solntsevskaya bratva, or Solntsevskaya brotherhood, the Solntsevo District gang), one of if not the most powerful organized crime group in the world and is still the most dangerous crime group operating in Moscow.citation needed
- Dolgoprudnenskaya was a Russian mafia organization and was considered one of the largest groups of organized crime operating in Moscow. It was really named after Dolgoprudniy, which is a Moscow suburb. It was founded in 1988 and was allegedly very influential.
- The Izmaylovskaya gang (from Izmaylovo District) was considered one of the country’s most important and oldest Russian Mafia groups in Moscow and also had a presence in Tel Aviv, Berlin, Paris, Toronto, Miami and New York City.It was founded during the 1980s under the leadership of Oleg Ivanov and was estimated to consist of about 200 active members (according to other data of 300-500 people). In principle, the organization was divided into two separate bodies Izmailovskaya and Gol’yanovskaya, which utilized quasi-military ranks and strict internal discipline. It was involved extensively in murder-for-hire, extortions, and infiltration of legitimate businesses.
- The Tambov Gang of Saint Petersburg.
- The Obshina (“community” in Russian), or Chechen mafia, was a formidable organized crime and paramilitary group. According to experts, ethnic Chechen criminal gangs once formed the most dominant minority criminal group in Russia. It is believed some gangs may have ties to Chechen militant factions citation needed.
- The Potato Bag gang was a gang of con artists operating in New York’s Brighton Beach in the mid-1970scitation needed.
- The Orekhovskaya gang (again, from Orekhovo) was a powerful criminal group in between the late 1980s and early 1990s citation needed.
Notable Russian mafiosi
- Evsei Agron – Regarded as the first “Don” or “Godfather” of New York’s Russian mafia. Agron was a Vor and immigrated to the U.S. in 1975 and quickly set-up a base of operations in the mostly Jewish-Russian community of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. He was highly feared for his violent tendencies and eagerness to use violence in order to enforce his authority within New York’s Russian underworld. By aligning himself with New York’s powerful, influential and feared Gambino crime family, his position as New York’s reigning Russian Godfather was enhanced. He was assassinated in May 1985. His title and operations were taken over by his top advisor, Marat Balagula and his former driver and bodyguard Boris Nayfeld.
- Marat Balagula – Ukrainian-Jewish crime boss and former top advisor to Brighton Beach Godfather Evsei Agron, whose mantle and operations he took over after Agron was murdered in 1985. Balagula was suspected of ordering the hit on his former boss. Balagula was the originator of a billion-dollar gasoline tax racket and a close associate of Lucchese crime family, who protected his interests in the gasoline tax rackets. Released from American prison in 2004.
- Viktor Bout – GRU major turned international arms merchant; former international fugitive; now awaiting extradition to the United States.
- Yuri Brokhin – Famed expatriate Russian dissident/international drug dealer and jewel thief; murdered 1982.
- Vitali Dyomochka – Russian mobster who produced a TV series chronicling his own activities.
- Monya Elson – Moldovian-Jewish, one of the most feared professional killers in the Russian mafia; convicted of three murders and imprisoned.
- Vadim Safronov – Vor v Zakone, controls criminal activities in Tver, Russia; since 1992-2012 jailed in Siberia.
- Nikolai Radev – Minor Australian crime boss. Murdered outside his home in 2003 during the infamous Melbourne Gangland War.
- Ludwig “Tarzan” Fainberg – Ukrainian-Jewish, Southern Florida intermediary between the Medellin drug cartel and the Russian Mafia; deported to Israel.
- Vyacheslav “Yaponchik” Ivankov – America’s most powerful vor v zakone; deported to Russia.On June 8, 1995, Ivankov was arrested on Extortion in the United States by the FBI, convicted, and jailed. In 2004, was released from prison and extradited to Russia. On July 13, 2004 Ivankov was deported to Russia to face murder charges over two Turkish nationals who were shot in a Moscow restaurant following a heated argument in 1992. On July 28, 2009, at around 19:20 Moscow time (1520 GMT), Ivankov was shot while leaving a restaurant on Khoroshevskoye Road in Moscow. A sniper rifle was found abandoned in a nearby parked vehicle. Having died from his injuries seventy-three days later, on October 9, 2009,Ivankov was buried in Moscow on October 13, 2009.
- Zakhar Kalashov – Ethnically Kurdish Armenian International vor v zakone boss; jailed in Spain.)
- Vladimir Kumarin – Saint Petersburg-based boss of Tambov Gang crime group.
- Otar “Otarik” Kvantrishvili – Ethnically Georgian Moscow extortionist; murdered in 1994.
- Ruslan Labazanov – Chechen crime boss; murdered in 1996.
- Sergei Mikhailov – Moscow-based head of Solntsevskaya bratva crime group.
- Semion Mogilevich – Billionaire Ukrainian Jewish capo di tutti capi of Russian mafias. Known as the “OLO Kemo”, ” he is considered by the FBI to be the most dangerous gangster in the world ” and the “boss of all bosses” with in the Russian Mafia. Mogilevich is nicknamed “The Brainy Don” because of his business acumen and the college degree in economics from the Lviv University that he holds. In 2003 the FBI put Mogilevich on their Wanted List for participation in the scheme to defraud investors in Canadian company YBM Magnex International Inc. Frustrated in their previous efforts unsuccessfully to charge him for arms trafficking and prostitution, they had now settled on the large-scale fraud charges as their best hope of running him to ground. He was arrested inMoscow on January 24, 2008, for suspected tax evasion. His bail was placed on July 24, 2008 by Taylor Piercefield. On October 22, 2009 he was named by the FBI as the 494th fugitive to be placed on the Ten Most Wanted list.
- Boris Nayfeld – Also knwon as Beeba. Orthodox Jewish gang leader, former driver and bodyguard for Brighton Beach Godfather Evsei Agron. After Agron’s murder in 1985 he rose through the ranks of the Russian criminal underworld and became an international drug kingpin.
- Khozh-Ahmed Noukhaev – Chechen crime boss; missing and believed dead.
- Mikhail Rabo – Formerly respected member of the Berlin Jewish community who was arrested for secretly heading one of Russia’s largest and most powerful organized crime groups.
- Alexander Solonik – Notorious professional assassin, who was murdered in Athens in 1997 by the Orekhovskaya banda.
- Nikolay “Hoza” Suleimanov – Chechen head of Obshina crime group; murdered in 1994.
- Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov – Ethnically Uzbek Arms dealer and accused Olympic fixer.
- Movladi Atlangeriyev – Chechen crime boss, kidnapped in 2008.
- Tariel Oniani – Georgian crime boss.
- Aslan Usoyan – Ethnic Kurdish crime boss operating in Moscow.
Foreign businessmen and the Russian Mafia
An unknown number of foreign businessmen, believed to be in the low thousands, arrived in Russia from all over the world during the early and mid 1990s to seek their fortune and to cash in on the transition from a lanned Market communist to a free market/capitalist society. This period was referred to by many of the businessmen as the “second great gold rush”citation needed.
Generally, 1990 to 1998 was a wild and unstable time for most foreign businessmen operating in Russiacitation needed. Dangerous battles with the Russian Mob occurred, with many being killed or woundedcitation needed. The Mafia welcomed the foreign businessmen and their expertise in facilitating business and making things happen in a stagnant and new economycitation needed. The Mafia considered them as a good source of hard currency, to be extorted under the usual guise of “protection money”citation needed. Many different Mafia groups would fiercely compete to be able to “protect” a certain businessman; in exchange, the businessman would not have to worry about having more than one group showing up demanding tribute from himcitation needed. Many foreign businessmen left Russia after these incidentscitation needed.
The Russian mafia are present in many video games, mostly as enemies to the player, including Max Payne, Stranglehold, True Crime: Streets of LA, Republic: The Revolution and the Grand Theft Auto series. They appear as a possible ally in Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction. In September 2009, the browser game Mafia Wars added Russia as a locale and featured the Mafiya as one of two opposing allegiances (the other being the Vory). Recently, in the console game Grand Theft Auto IV, fictional members of Russian and other East European criminal organizations have been featured as key elements in the development of the game’s storyline.
Though not as prominent as their Italian-American counterparts, Russian or FSU mobsters have appeared in a number of Hollywood movies usually as villains or antagonists. These include GoldenEye, Lord of war, Rancid Aluminum,RocknRolla, The Jackal, 25th Hour, The Boondock Saints, Ronin, Police Story 4: First Strike, Be Cool, Jungle 2 Jungle, Training Day, We Own the Night, Little Odessa, Maximum Risk, Red Heat, Bad Boys II, Eastern Promises, Iron Man 2, and The Dark Knight, Police Academy: Mission to Moscow, The Bird Cage.
There have of course been many Russian movies on the subject, probably the most well-known of which is Brother and Brother 2. The anti-hero protagonist, Danila, is a Russian war veteran that fought in Chechnya who becomes a contract killer in St Petersburg. The film and its sequel became wildly popular amongst the Russian youth. Killer (1998) is a take on organized crime in Kazahkstan.
- In the anime Black Lagoon, the main characters’ primary allies are a branch of the Russian Mafia based in Thailand, which is called Hotel Moscow and is made up primarily of veterans of War in Afghanistan.
- In Marvel Comics’s Ultimate Marvel imprint, Colossus of the X-men was a member of the Red Mafia.
- In Marvel Comics’s MAX imprint of The Punisher, the Russian Mafia is one of the many criminal organizations that are targeted by Frank Castle in his war against organized crime.
- In the manga Sanctuary, the Russian Mafia tries to establish itself on the island of HokkaidÅ by joining forces with a Yakuza gang.
- Boris Starling’s novel Vodka (2005).
- In Chris Ryan’s 1998 novel The Kremlin Device the protagonist must train the Russian armed forces in anti-mafia strategies.
- In Jeffrey Archer’s 1998 novel The Eleventh Commandment a Russian mob boss is part of the plot, described as a thief in law.
- In James Patterson’s novels The Big Bad Wolf and London Bridges, the main antagonist was a Russian gangster called “the Wolf”.
- The short story collection The Odessa Tales by writer Isaac Babel covers the Jewish underworld in Moldavanka, a Ukrainian ghetto. His most popular character is a Jewish gangster named Benya Krik.
- In Andy McNab’s novel Firewall, the protagonist’s job is firstly to capture and then to aid a mafia warlord from the Russian Organized Crime.
- In Artemis Fowl: The Arctic Incident written by Eoin Colfer, the main character’s father is held hostage by the Russian Mafia.
- Brett Kihlmire’s novel The Hammer Falls.
- In Anthony Horowitz’s Ark Angel, Dimitry Drevin is involved in the Yakuza and the Mafiya.
- Noel Hynd’s novel Conspiracy in Kiev, the first of The Russian Trilogy
- The Russian mafia appear in several episodes of The Sopranos, most memorably in the episode “Pine Barrens”.
- Other American television series have also made use of Russian gangsters, such as the characters of Yuri Kosygin, Nikolai Stanislofsky, and Alexander Vogel in the TV series Oz.
- The Russian miniseries The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed and Brigada explore the Russian mafia post-World War II and post-communism respectively.
- A Russian Mafia Leader is seen in a season 6 episode of the Fox TV series “Bones”.
- In the latest series of CSI:Miami, the Russian Mafia or what they refer to as the Russian Mob makes an appearance and dominates the series with events surrounding Ivan Sarnoff
- In Lady Gaga’s music video “Bad Romance”, she was taken to the Russian mafia after being drugged by two supermodels who kidnapped her while lying in a bathtub.