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Allan May is an organized crime historian, writer and lecturer. He teaches classes on the history of organized crime at Cuyahoga Community College. Contact him at

Red Mafiya / Before Bruno
Book Review
By Allan May

     Robert I. Friedman’s account of Russian organized crime activity is a stunning, eye opening story of the menace facing United States law enforcement agencies today. The author sets the chilling stage for us by revealing in the first paragraph of his introduction that he has been made the target of a murder contract by the people he is investigating.

     Friedman does an excellent job of introducing the mobsters, giving a thumbnail background on them, and discussing what they are currently involved in (if they are still living of course). In doing so, Friedman also breaks down the various criminal activities that the Russian mob has taken hold of.

     Of all the recently released books “Red Mafiya” is the only one that is expose in nature, revealing the enormity of this criminal enterprise to many of us for the first time. “Red Mafiya” is not the first book written on Russian organized crime, “Russian Mafia in America,” by James O. Finckenauer and Elin J. Waring, was published in 1998.

     Among the Russian mobsters Friedman introduces are Monya Elson, Evsei Agron, Emile Puzyretsky, the Nayfeld brothers, Marat Balagula, the Zilber brothers, Semion Mogilevich, and Vyacheslav Ivankov. While these names are not as familiar to us as those of Gotti, Gambino, Anastasia or the Gallo brothers, these individuals have proven to be just as crafty, if not as deadly, as their Italian counterparts. What surprised me, something I had not released before, is that the majority of these criminals are Jewish.

     In making comparisons to Italian mobsters Friedman states:

     “…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…’”

     “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…’”

     Brighton Beach has become the neighborhood of choice for many Russian criminals. Friedman interviewed Gregory Stasiuk of the New York State Organized Crime Task Force and received these comments:

     “Russians [in Brighton Beach] still don’t trust the local cops because they see them work as bouncers at the local mobbed-up restaurants.

     “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.”

     Friedman discusses one of the problems law enforcement has in going after the Russian gangsters:

     “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 on 1992. ‘They won’t hesitate to go after a cop’s family.’”

     Another scary point Friedman brings up is the Russian hockey players in the NHL and their relationships with known Russian gangsters. While in other sports contact with gamblers and organized crime figures is strictly forbidden, this contact is overlooked for the most part by NHL officials according to the author. Friedman details the facts regarding the shakedown of many of these Russian players who have become extortion targets of this new criminal menace.

     While “Red Mafiya” is not about the traditional Italian underworld we are used to reading about, it does introduce us to the latest wave of ethnic activity in the world of organized crime.

Before Bruno:

     I have to tell you, I had some problems with this one. While I can honestly appreciate the effort Celeste A. Morello put into the research, I didn’t find the book that interesting and I certainly didn’t consider it well written.

     The posts on the Forum regarding this book point to the cost as being one problem with it. I concur. Thirty dollars for a paperback with limited photos and 176 pages? Compare that to the new release by Paul Kavieff, “The Purple Gang.” This latter publication is a hardcover with 32 pages of photos and is 215 pages, retailing for just $22.00. In addition, the cover of “Before Bruno” informs us this is “Book 1.” Will we have to fork over another $30 bucks for “Book 2?”

     In “Before Bruno,” Morello spends a great deal of time pointing out the mistakes of other authors. Before Morello even gets into her story she takes a needless shot at respected writers by stating, “The reader will notice that I hesitate to challenge histories written by non-scholars, such as journalists and the like. Presumably, their liability for error is expected to be greater than those in academia in whom we place greater trust.”

     Can Morello be any more arrogant?

     Two of the most respected writers today are George Anastasia and Jerry Capeci. Both of these writers are journalists. Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, authors of the recent “Black Mass,” are both journalists. Looking back, Hank Messick and Claire Sterling were also journalists. If Morello feels she has produced a work superior to any of these writers she is sadly mistaken.

     “Before Bruno” is a jagged read at best. The content before appendices is only 116 pages. In addition to Morello’s pot shots at other authors within these 116 pages, she adds three appendices to make additional disparaging remarks on Francis A. J. Ianni’s work and at the work of the Pennsylvania Crime Commission. Why she feels it is necessary to point out other’s mistakes, while making a few of her own, is not explained.

     While Morello does an excellent job of revealing the little before known facts on the life of Salvatore Sabella, her work provides little else. She gives little insight into the overall picture of Italian organized crime in Philadelphia and focuses solely on a few incidents.

     In a couple of instances she uses Italian words in a sentence to make a point, however, the reader is left to wonder what the words mean. For example:

     “Sabella’s men were also expected to reflect the Family’s raison d’etre in various businesses, legitimate or illicit.”

     What does that mean?

     Morello makes the claim, “When Capone came to Philadelphia, neither Sabella nor any other gangster here gave the notorious criminal any recognition, any place to stay, and least of all, any safety…the gangster-celebrity received no welcome from other gangsters, in apparent self respect to Sabella.”

     Capone’s six biographers, all non-academies I’m sure, must have over looked this little known fact. Capone’s sole purpose in going to Philadelphia was to get arrested, which he did rather quickly. He arrived there after leaving the Atlantic City Conference, which the respected Sabella had not been invited to. Apparently she missed the entire point of Capone’s incarceration as she states Capone sat in his cell “and just waited for the Sicilians to finish killing each other.”

     In addition Morello claims that “just days before (Maranzano’s murder), Al Capone surfaced in the city and asked the elevator operator where Maranzano’s office was located.” I wonder why Capone, who was wrapped up in his income tax trial in Chicago, decided to come to New York to seek out directions to an elevator.

     Here’s hoping that Morello will produce a more pleasurable read in “Book 2,” that she focuses on telling her own story as opposed to ripping down everyone else’s, and that she doesn’t charge such a high price to us non-academia working stiffs.

Next Review: The Purple Gang and Encyclopedia of Organized Crime in the United States.

Copyright A. R. May 2000

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