Image: Ivankov’s funeral in Moscow, October 13, 2009 (Obtained from Russia Beyond the Headlines, June 19, 2017).
Russian criminal groups seem to enjoy a special place in the public’s understanding of the array of global criminal fraternities. Typically cast as the latest iteration of the ruthless and organized criminal plaguing the streets of Europe, mafiosi from the regions comprising the former Soviet Union now enjoy the label of the preeminent criminal threat to North America where, besides Mexican cartels, they are considered to be the most effective and ruthless criminals. While the hyperbole evident in the public’s thought-process can lead to false notions regarding the power and organizational structure of those criminal groups, it can certainly be concluded that these organizations now stand as some of the most perilous and powerful sub-state actors – dangerous to individuals, businesses and sovereign states – that can be found anywhere on the Globe.
While their actual power structure and level of influence remain somewhat enigmatic, criminals from Eastern Europe continue to generate some of the most important headlines in North America related to organized crime. In the early 1980s they burst onto the American criminal landscape with an operationally sophisticated yet intellectually simple scam involving the pocketing of gasoline sales taxes due to the United States’ government. This involvement in sophisticated racketeering soon expanded to the importation and trafficking of heroin, spawning aggressive competition and violence between local groups (known colloquially as bratva or “brigades”) on the streets of south Brooklyn in New York City. The complexity of these operations again increased as new brigades began to exploit loopholes in federal regulations related to the stock market. By 1998 YBM Magnex, a Pennsylvania company linked to one of Russia’s preeminent godfathers, Semyon Mogilevich, had been halted from trading on the Toronto Stock Exchange and was reported to have cost investors hundreds of millions of dollars, netting Mogilevich and his fellow scammers around $150 million. Since then reports and legal cases have arisen in Los Angeles, New York, south Florida, Toronto, Montreal and many other cities of ongoing fraud committed against government agencies as well as the citizens and communities that fund them. Often related to healthcare services, real estate and the stock market, these criminal undertakings demonstrate the sheer complexity of the illicit enterprises these criminal groups operate and their relative erudition in regards to the policies and practices of the agencies, ministries and governments they embezzle from or defraud.
In this latest exploration of organized criminal behaviour PanAmerican Crime will examine the known operations of criminal groups hailing from the former Eastern Bloc now in action in North America – who comprises these organizations and what their exposed rackets consist of. As the full extent of the operations and size of these organizations in North America, Russia and beyond are not known, this list will not be exhaustive and will only scratch the surface of their activities. However, from these revealed rackets will emerge a simultaneously more nuanced and encompassing vision of the threat such syndicates pose to civil society. And, crucial questions will be answered, such as: what group was operating out of Trump Tower in New York City? Why, in 2011, did President Obama identify the “Brothers’ Circle” as a major criminal threat to the United States? And, most importantly, why should anyone care?
Who Are The Vory?
The tradition of the Vory v Zakone (“Thieves in Law”) predates the fall of the Soviet Union and Premier Gorbachev’s symbiotic campaigns of Perestroika and Glasnost – the campaign to modernize and remake the Soviet Party model that was the foundation of the drive towards “openness.” This criminal institution, while perhaps strengthened in the gulags of Stalin’s purges and the ensuing wars between inmates that collaborated with the Soviet government during the Second World War and those that remained steadfast in their anti-government resolve (known colloquially as the “Bitch Wars”), was actually formed in the prisons of the tsars. The Russian caesars’ autocratic proclivities and the traditionally harsh patterns of state authority in Eastern Europe fed increased societal resentment towards all forms of government. In the depths of the dungeons of Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as the serf labour camps that dotted the country systems of resistance percolated, eventually blossoming in these veritable gardens of inequity into a fully-fledged criminal subculture with established rules, traditions and a long operational history.
From this history of criminal resistance to the state came the tradition of the Vorovski Mir (“Thieves World”), a place ruled by harshly enforced regulations and rituals that require complete adherence to the rules as well as the dictates of one’s superiors. These rules include: never serve government, as an employee or as a cooperating witness; never display emotions; never lose control of intellectual faculties when drinking; obey the judgments of superior Vory or the Thieves Council; never gamble beyond means; assist all other thieves and teach youth with potential the code of the Vory; never deny the Vor status; and, master the thieves’ coded language, known as Fenya. Yet, not all participants in this world are formally inducted as a Vor v Zakone (“Thief in Law”). Like becoming “made” in Italian-American mafia families, the Vor designation is only reserved for fully inducted members who often utilize other non-inducted criminals within their orbit to assist in operating their rackets and businesses. Principal among these money-making activities and crucial to the each group’s notion of control over territories or points of access to sources of illicit money or illegal operations is the idea of Krysha (“protection”). The practice of enforcing Krysha is central to maintaining control over not just revenue sources but clientele and membership too, and can also derive from control over specific geographic territory or specific rackets.
The criminal organizations that will be discussed all exist under the umbrella of the regulations and established practices that define and empower the Voroski Mir. Again, while all participating members in these conspiracies are not recognized as fully inducted members of the Thieves World, they also must operate within the dictates and adhere to the general principles of this code, or risk isolation, ostracism or even death. While their code empowers them and induces loyalty by generating feelings of belonging it also has, more importantly, produced organizations and individuals with the abilities necessary to undermine the institutions of the state in any locale they inhabit – this is, in effect, why understanding the reach and efficacy and, therefore, the structure of these groups is so important. Criminal organizations in North America with membership from ex-Soviet countries have now progressed through the more typical rackets of gambling, loan sharking, prostitution, human trafficking, narcotics wholesaling, weapons sales and murder-for-hire to far more sophisticated, and ultimately, more significant crimes involving the usurpation of states’ apparatus for their own economic ends. As the examples in this article will demonstrate, the Vory’s involvement in all manner of fraud and embezzlement related to the services of the state — primarily but not limited to healthcare, cyber crime, real estate and financial services — undermine the legitimacy of civil society and notions of community at a far greater level than petty crimes or even violence. And, it is important to recognize that individuals in such groups have grown up in self-destructing or post-Soviet societies, exploiting and, in effect, battling the legitimacy of the state by undermining its services and therefore the state itself.
The “Russian” Mob and North America
Gangsters plying their avocation in North America but deriving from the ex-Soviet world are often understood to operate tangentially. And, in certain respects, this supposition is correct. Like the internal pressures between criminals living in the old Soviet Union who adhere to the traditional Vor culture and young gangsters who see little need to conform to such strictures, groups in North America are often viewed as operating well removed from any oversight or as part of larger syndicates back in Russia. Again, this model in some ways fits the traditional Vor model of inducted criminals operating rackets through the use of other non-inducted criminals. In this sense, the Thieves World is dynamic and ever-changing while remaining uniform and static. However, to assume that criminals originating from Eastern Europe conduct their nefarious enterprises devoid of influence or outright control from the powerful illicit organizations based in Russia or Eastern Europe is ignorant of the intense hierarchy that these groups also employ. As Alain Bauer, the French criminologist, stated in 2010, these groups are some of “the best structured criminal organizations in Europe, with a quasi-military operation.” His description fits better than the oft-touted notion of loosely or non-aligned brigades of ex-Soviet mobsters operating without any real structure in cities throughout North America. This conclusion does not contend that there are no street gangs or criminals of eastern European heritage that operate separate from the Thieves World; undoubtedly there are. However, the fact remains that the large syndicates based in the former Soviet Union have spread their tentacles across the World and have established clearly interconnected branch plants in the metropoles of North America that work in conjunction with the mafias of the Eastern Union to further their economic and martial needs.
The spread of the Vor culture and associated groups to North America began with the gradual movement towards the aforementioned glasnost (openness) policy and the precursor relaxation of emigration restrictions practiced in the Soviet Union against Jewish citizens from Eastern Bloc countries. Similar in timing and execution to Fidel Castro’s expelling of political and criminal dissidents to Miami in 1980 – the so-called Mariel Boatlift – the Soviets used these moments of policy change to rid themselves of those deemed ungovernable within Soviet society, including various groups of Vory. Once removed from their prisons, those who had been incarcerated for their criminal predispositions quickly learned to pose as political prisoners or as those professing the Jewish faith that were routinely oppressed under the Soviet system. These members of criminal syndicates were welcomed in Israel and many soon departed for other areas of Europe and North America, where they sought to blend and disguise their activities as part of the growing Slavic Diaspora.
Following the flight of Vory who had pretended to be Jewish or who had used their legitimate faith to gain early release, other factors conspired together to further increase the flow of Russian mobsters into the immigrant estuaries of North America’s large cities. Principle among these was the chaos that ensued following the collapse of Soviet authority from 1989-1991. From this period until the rise of Vladimir Putin in 2000 there were literally thousands of murders in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev and the other great Slavic cities that were attributed to organized crime. Many employees of the Soviet security services, including police, military and the intelligence services, such as the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) and the KGB (now the Federal Security Bureau), found themselves without power or purpose, and were set adrift to navigate the collapse of the old order alone or in destitute circumstances with their families. Unsurprisingly, these individuals did not abandon their skill-sets, which had become increasingly marketable in the upheavals of post-Soviet Russia. Instead, they became the enforcement, logistics and operational heads within the world of the Vory, at times forming their own extortion and racketeering enterprises, competing or joining with the established gangs for money, power and influence. This rash of criminal expansionism very quickly came to the forefront of the public’s awareness as bombings, assassinations, brazen daytime robberies and shootouts in public squares soon became commonplace throughout Eastern Europe in 1990s.
From the ashes of the old Soviet Empire grew criminal groups with access to advanced military technologies and the various surviving organs of the post-Soviet state. These organizations existed in a condition of perpetual conflict until 2000 when President Putin declared that such actions would no longer be tolerated. Stationed in Eastern Germany during prior to and during the collapse, he himself had been a member of the KGB and sympathized with the plight of his former colleagues, but the Vory and their new ex-government employees were simply becoming too powerful and were embarrassing the surviving components of the Russian state. It has never been officially explained how Putin accomplished his dramatic drop in violence, who of the Vory godfathers he approached or what offer he made that they could not refuse; regardless, this reduction in violence was achieved revealing several crucial facts. Firstly, like the Christian Democrats in post-war Italy, Putin’s political party was now firmly in bed with the Vor godfathers, although their levels of symbiosis remain to be fully explored and will likely never completely come to light. Also, the figurative de-bathification of the Russian security forces in the wake of the Empire’s collapse provided almost innumerable conduits for the mobsters to access the state, and vice-versa. These undeniable facts further demonstrate the mafia-nature of Russia today and point to the level that the Voroski Mir has become synonymous with various state actors throughout the former Easter Bloc.
From Brighton Beach to 5th Avenue
While the internecine conflicts that ripped through the former Soviet republics in the 1990s are undoubtedly interesting and revealing on a contemporary political level, they do not reveal much about the condition of the so-called Russian mob in North America, which was supposedly the purpose of this investigation. The conflicts do, however, play an important role in explaining the politics of the groups that operate in North America and hint at the vast level of interplay between the Russian state and these criminal syndicates.
Initially, Russian criminals in the United States started in the mould of all new recently arrived and ethnically-defined criminal groups: struggling to get by while, for the most part, they victimized members of their own racial group. In the 1970s this phenomenon played out in the form of a group of criminals known as the “Potato Gang.” Posing as dealers in antique gold Russian rubles, they would instead sell unsuspecting Russian immigrants bags of potatoes.
By 1983 this form of criminality had undergone a transition towards further sophistication. Again, as has happened with many other immigrant populations in North America, illegal narcotics (in this case heroin) became the primary undertaking for Russian mobsters. Evsai Agron came to rule the Russian enclave in Brighton Beach Brooklyn through his practice of extorting krysha (protection) from his countrymen. However, his chief supporters soon began to bemoan their lack of income and craved the highlife that successful drug dealing can provide. Consequently, Agron would be assassinated in 1985 and have his rackets taken over by Marat Balagula, who transformed Agron’s network into a very profitable heroin business. By 1979 the Soviet Red Army had rolled into Afghanistan and corrupt civil servants in Russia were soon enriching themselves on the profits of the dangerous drug, exporting it abroad to the growing Soviet Diaspora. Balagula would be indicted in New York a year later and would flee abroad before being arrested in Frankfurt in 1989. Balagula’s heroin network would be taken over by Agron’s former driver and bodyguard Boris “Biba” Nayfeld.
From the start of Nayfeld’s most prolific period of trafficking (1990-1994) he would partner with the “Polish Al Capone” – Ricardo Fanchiniin – dramatically increasing the network’s importation and sale of heroin in New York City and beyond. Nayfeld also worked hand-in-hand with another Jewish émigré, Monya Elson, who upon his arrival in Brighton Beach established his own group (“Monya’s Brigade”). Elson would develop relations with one of the leaders of the Bronx faction of the Genovese Crime Family – Daniel Pagano – a relationship that would eventually save his life when Genovese capo Anthony “Tony D” Palumbo desired to rub him out. The once mutually beneficial relationship between Elson and Nayfeld soon dissolved into bloodshed with Elson surviving several assassination attempts and fleeing the United States; Nayfeld was subsequently arrested for heroin smuggling by 1994. Elson would be arrested in 1995 on the same charges while on the run in Europe. In a comparable example of increasing sophistication and inter-operability with Italian mobsters in NYC, Slavic gangster Michael Markowitz – a pioneer of the immensely profitable gasoline tax fraud scheme – worked alongside Colombo Crime Family captain Michael Franzese until his March, 1989 murder at the hands of the Colombos in Brooklyn.
While, again, these groups appear disparate and disunited, Monya Elson and the aftermath of the Elson-Nayfeld feud present the first concrete evidence of the control exerted by larger groups based in Eastern Europe over North American organizations. Elson was a close partner of Semyon Mogilevich who currently remains on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for, among other things, fixing the Ice Dance competition at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Mogilevich also earned fame in North America for running an infamous pump-and-dump stock scam utilizing YBM Magnex International, which reportedly bilked investors out of $150 million. YBM was based in Pennsylvania yet was listed first on the Alberta stock exchange in 1994 and in 1996 on the Toronto Stock Exchange. By 1998 the stock crashed after investors that existed in Mogilevich’s orbit pulled out their earnings, leaving a shell of a company with no real value. To this day Mogilevich is said to enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship with German Secret Police (BND) and reportedly has interest in or manages complex smuggling routes for weapons, drugs and human trafficking. He is also rumoured to have, at one time and possibly even now, controlled all of the illegal trafficking of goods into and out of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport. Today, Mogilevich bases his operations out of Hungary where his organization, sometimes referred to as the “Red Mafia,” is reported to be intricately connected to the government there, granting him protection and freedom from extradition to the West. No wonder then that Elson himself is said to have stated that Mogilevich is the “most powerful mobster in the World.”
After Nayfeld and Elson were arrested or went on the lam the control exerted by the Russian godfathers over their extended North American arms was tightened further. Whether Mogilevich’s operations were usurped or willingly exchanged for some unknown monetary amount or favour is unknown. What is known is that as the Nayfeld and Elson war was getting under way a new gangster entered the Brighton Beach scene. Vyacheslav (known as “Yaponchik” – the “Japanese”) Ivankov was a brutal Vor, well known in Moscow for the various public killings he conducted in the first years of chaos following the dissipation of the Soviet machine. Apparently, due to his violent and unpredictable behavior, Yaponchik was sent trammeled off to North America and given operational control over the Russian brigades operating in the NYC area. In order to control rackets in the southern United States Mikhail Odenussa was dispatched to Atlanta, Georgia. Odenussa has ruled Atlanta with an iron hand ever since, reportedly outgunning cartel and local black gangs’ attempts at ousting him. Yaponchik would waste no time incorporating the various bratvas operating in Brooklyn and throughout the Northeast into his operations. One such successful takeover involved the brigade of Georgian Valeri “Globus” Glugech. Glugech was subsequently killed for refusing Ivankov.
Both Odenussa and Yaponchik had been established in North America as part of a general expansion by Russian syndicates. Rather than Mogilevich’s Red Mafia, these two dangerous criminals served the Solntsevskaya Bratva, which derives its name from the place it emerged from: the Solntsevo District in Moscow. The Solntsevskaya Bratva is the largest criminal organization that adheres to the rules of the Voroski Mir to be found anywhere in the World. With over 6,000 members, its operations stretch from South America to Australia, impacting almost every continent on the Planet. It has apparently partnered with the Caruana-Cuntrera mafia clan (which is based in Montreal, Venezuela and Sicily) to export cocaine throughout the World as well as the staple products of heroin, human cargo and cyber/financial crimes. While Yaponchik would be arrested by the FBI in 1995 shortly into his North American tenure and serve ten years before being deported back to Russia, he would quickly be replaced by Konstantin “Kostya Gizya” Ginzburg, who fast replaced him as the most powerful Vor in North America. Yaponchik would be shot by a sniper in Moscow in June, 2009, passing away from the wound by October of that year.
While Odenussa, Yaponchik and his successor Ginzberg provide excellent examples of the reach of ex-Soviet organized crime in North America other examples abound. A demonstration of significant proportions can be witnessed in the massive movement of material by these groups, none of which could be undertaken without incredible organizational and logistical abilities as well as substantial government corruption. In 1990, Ludwig “Tarzan” Feinberg opened “Porky’s” strip club in Miami. By 1997 he was arrested by American federal agents for the trafficking of illegal arms, including, but not limited to, Russian Army helicopters and a submarine to be used for narco-trafficking. His main client was found to be Juan Almeida of the Cali Cartel, based in Colombia. The reasons for this demonstrable power are again well known and numerous; however, it often typically comes down to the reality that ex-Soviet criminals are generally more educated and technologically proficient than other immigrant groups due to the former Soviet education system and, as stated earlier, the massive layoff of public employees at that Empire’s dissolution with a wide variety of skill sets that were marketable in the Vorovski Mir. Consequently, the over 200 Vory groups that currently have an international presence continue undermine government legitimacy around the Globe. Beyond operating a Thieves Bank (or Abshak [sic]) one of these groups alone defrauded the investors over $279 million from an auto insurance scam in the United States. Similarly revealing in its scope was a Medicare scam perpetrated by Armenian gangster Arman Kazarian in California that has been described as “biggest ever.”
Other notable examples of groups currently operating in North America include:
- The Order of Ronova: An organization with ties to Russian and Italian organized crime that is based throughout cities in the south-western US, such as: Salt Lake City, Utah, Carson City, Nevada, Tacoma, Washington, and Phoenix, Arizona. It has an estimated 100 made members, and 400 associates;
- Gradinaru Bratva: A family started in Cleveland, Ohio, it is also known as Оргаруже, which stands for Organized Russian Gentlemen. Founded by the Michalov family, members of this organization are fierce and, like the Italian-American Cosa Nostra, have a specific administrative hierarchy consisting of three leaders.
- The Grekov Gang – Rumoured to be named after Grecoff Bradlik, this group has been known to dominate Saint Petersburg with a branch in Montreal, Canada.
- The Brothers’ Circle – Reportedly headed by Temuri Mirzoyev, this multi-ethnic organization was named in 2011by President Obama as one of four transnational organized crime groups that pose a significant threat to US security, leading to the Treasury Department sanctioning the transit and movement of capital of seven members of the group. Interestingly, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project states that the label of “Brothers’ Circle” as a uniform association is misleading and that rather than existing as a unified criminal community it is instead just a connection of disparate individuals and groups.
This disagreement about the true nature of the Brothers’ Circle provides a perfect demonstration of the enigmatic structure and relationships enacted by these groups, with experts disagreeing on their makeup as well as the operational layout and interaction with other similar syndicates. However, often understandings of these operational paradigms perceive them as dichotomous, rather than realizing that these groups exist as both tangential and hierarchical – such as a group or individual that has been dispatched to a foreign country, such as Canada or America, operating individually and autonomously within that environment while still remaining ultimately beholden and loyal to a major Russian bratva, who receives a certain percentage of the branch plant’s earnings, and representing the home syndicate’s interests there.
The recent high-profile investigation of two money-laundering rings that were seemingly managed out of unit 63A of Trump Tower, a $5 million suite in downtown Manhattan (a mere three floors below the future President’s penthouse), provides yet another stark example of rackets that were individually run but simultaneously overseen from abroad. According to the details of the FBI’s investigation that took place between 2011 and 2013, the unit was leased by Vadim Trincher and the illegal two networks that operated from it spanned New York City, Kiev, Los Angeles and Moscow. The first group was overseen by Trincher, Alimzhan “Taiwanchik” Tokhtakhounov and Anatoly Golubchik). This network was charged with racketeering, money-laundering, extortion and illegal gambling, with indebted customers routinely threatened with torture and murder if they did not make good on what they owed. The actions of these extremely successful criminals even effected a political controversy by forcing former president Obama’s pick as ambassador to France to forgo the appointment due to his connection to Trincher’s son, Illya. One other part of the trio of organizers, Tokhtakhounov, also became infamous due to his alleged involvement with Semyon Mogilevich in fixing the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics’ Ice Dancing competition. He is still under indictment in the United States but has avoided arrest by staying in Russia, where he appeared on the Red Carpet of the Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow in 2013, standing beside who-else but President Donald Trump. The second ring to operate out of unit 63A involved gambling, loan sharking and money laundering, and was also run by Trincher and included Hillel “Helly” Hamad and Noah “the Oracle” Siegel. Again, as previous examples have made clear, these ex-Soviet criminals often flee back to Russia or other non-extradition treaty countries in Eastern Europe where they are given a new role to fulfill in the syndicate in which serve.
Each of the conspiracies examined in this article, either described or alluded to, demonstrate that Russian criminals in North America, although often perceived to be operating in a more horizontal arrangement, continue to serve at the behest of senior criminals or bratvas based back in ex-Soviet countries and maintain their role in the traditional hierarchies of such groups. As the examples of Ivankov, Tokhtakhounov, Ginzberg, Mogilevich and others reveal, organized criminals from ex-Soviet countries continue to ply their trade in North America at the behest of their Vor masters based overseas in former Eastern Bloc states, emerging and retreating as necessary to avoid prison time or to accomplish their vast nefarious and grossly enriching schemes. Regardless of their inclusion of gangsters from other ethnicities in their schemes, Eastern European mobsters in North America, apart for the Mexican cartels and their American affiliates, now pose perhaps the greatest threat to civil society and the rule of law that can be attributed to a criminal subculture. From trafficking in heroin, smuggled goods and human beings to overseeing complex financial and computer crimes, these groups are now firmly established in the burgeoning North American underworld. The fact that the scope of their operations remains so misunderstood and opaque only further speaks to their power, influence and economic clout. Politicians, civil servants, law enforcement and society as a whole must recognize and adapt to this growing concern or risk finding out too late that vast sections of the economy are now impacted or exist beneath the scrutiny of the community due to the actions of these groups.
By: Scott Paulseth
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