Feature Articles

January 2007
Russian Jewish
Organized Crime

By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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"The Italian mafia has a singular link between Italy and America. The Russian Mafiya is more international. The Russians seem crazier than do the Italians. While the mafia uses violence to punish enemies, the Mafiya will kill the enemy, his wife, his children. They kill as a warning and for the sheer joy of tyrannical violence. Because the Russian mob is mostly Jewish, it is a political hot potato, especially in the New York area. In general, state and federal law enforcement agencies were loath to go after Russian mobsters, instead devoting their energies to bagging Italian wise guys, a traditional route to promotion." (Robert I. Friedman. Red Mafiya. How the Russian Mob Has Invaded America, 2000)

     The ethnic makeup of the Mafiya leadership is largely Russian or Georgian (64%). Among the remaining capomafiyas are found Armenians, Azerbaijani, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Abkhazians, and Chechens.

     They administer their own form of justice based on a code of conduct and have their own tribunals. The capos are generally youthful, the majority being between thirty and fifty years of age. Only a few exceed 60 years of age. These are persons who do not fear imprisonment, are incorrigible and primed for anything.

     The origins of the Mafiya are obscure. Thieves existed, of course, even before the reign of Peter the Great (1625-1725). In Moscow alone there were as many as 30,000, but they were not organized into clans. More or less organized criminality arose in the 1700s. The fraternal order vor v vzakonye, or "Thieves-in-Law", with the attributes of organized crime, is a recent phenomenon and was not evident before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. By the 1930s, the vors had evolved and were making common cause with Soviet political dissidents.

     After the 1917 revolution and the fall of Czarism, the enemies of the new order sought out the "Thieves in Law" for their own purposes. This integration of alienated young men resulted in a counterculture with a code of behavior that went against traditional values, including not accepting employment or forming a family or doing military service. In short, their ideological quarrel with the State was total, including a rather rigid version of the Sicilian code of silence and honor, omertà.

     The alliance of common criminals and young intellectuals was doomed to fail from the outset. The two different mentalities�one for social reformation, the other committed to an antisocial criminality�could not find a middle ground. During the 1930s the counterculture began to disintegrate. The delinquents formed their own autonomous groups, guided by "learned" bosses called urki. From this history arose the vor v vzakonye that became the foundation for today�s much more sophisticated Red Mafiya.

     Much has been made of the extreme barbarity of the Mafiya. Conciliation is not one of its strengths. "They�ll take out a whole family. But first they�ll torture victims to send out a message�they�ll cut off fingers, use acid, decapitate heads. It�s gruesome." The mobsters have an unquenchable thirst for blood and money, extorting even their own kind, whom they feel are especially vulnerable. In North America, as one example, they have targeted Russian-born hockey players. "The Mafiya has made the sports business one of its sources of revenue. Bribes, extortions, and killings are common."

     The vors consider themselves as the aristocracy of the underworld because they made their "bones" the hard way. Many of the older generation was recruited while serving sentences in the infamous work camps of the Siberian Gulug prison system. The clans have a structure and culture similar to the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, but there is no overall Mafiya Commission. A similar hierarchy of command appears to be non-existent; no capoclan accepts orders from others, certainly not a supreme capo. Interclan cooperation does occur when bands unite for international ventures, often in alliance with non-Russian mafias. The so-called "cocaine triangle," for instance, involves a combination of Colombian drug barons, Israel-Jewish money launderers and Jewish-Russian mafiosi. The Columbians funnel the cash, the Israelis launder it, and the Russians provide the security and muscle.

     Despite the variations from the Sicilian model, the Mafiya has the characteristics of many other criminal societies. There is the use of intimidation as an instrument of social mobility and entrepreneurial profit, and the imposition of the no-squealing rule in those communities where the mafia holds sway. Also the co-involvement of important segments of the political class and socio-economic institutions in illegal activity (e.g., influence peddling, bribing, and money recycling), and the ability to significantly impact the legitimate economy through the infusion of vast sums of ill-gotten gains.

     It is a convenience to use the term Red Mafiya to refer to what is in fact a complex phenomenon. Just as we speak generically of the Italian mafia when there are actually five with different histories, rather than using the singular word "Mafiya," the more correct designation is the plural "Mafiyas." Nor are they all Russian or based on an ethnic affiliation. There is the Georgian mafia, the Uzbec mafia, Ukrainian mafia, the mafia of Vladivostok, one in Kazan, the mafia of the ex-agents of the KGB, the mafias of oil and wood, the mafia of financial institutions, and others with specific functions and skills. There are many easy pickings in the former republics of the Soviet Union.

     By one estimate, during Mikhail Gorbachev�s regime organized crime enterprises in the Soviet Union increased from 785 to 5691. After the dissolution of the USSR and the downfall of communism, an economic, moral and social vacuum was created that allowed opportunists to take full advantage of the resulting chaos. The Solntsevskaya mob, named after a Moscow suburb, is one of the largest. Such mafias engage in systematic extortion schemes, which have become a way of life in the Russian capital. "You have to grease the palm or your business will have a short life span." Profitable institutions are the most susceptible to a shakedown. A show of wealth is an invitation for a less-than-friendly visit. Estimates indicate that a goodly number of private businesses and most state-owned companies and banks have been infiltrated by the mafioso plague

     The Mafiya has become transnational in scope. Russian émigré colonies in New York�s Brighton Beach district, in Israel, Paris and London are nesting criminal gangs. Some have gone as far afield as Sri Lanka for prostitution and gambling.

     In the early 1970s the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev opened the gates to limited emigration of Soviet Jews. Among them were hard-core criminals who had served prison sentences in the Gulag. In the two-year period 1972-73, more than 66,000 Russian Jews left their homeland, most of them going initially to Israel. The Israeli "law of return" made it easy for the Jews of the Diaspora to receive Israeli citizenship. Also non-Jews have purchased forged documents that declared them Jews to gain entrance to the country.

     The criminals among them quickly entered the Israeli underworld and made their presence known by investing their laundered wealth in Israeli real estate, businesses and banks. By all accounts, Israel has become a haven for the Mafiya and a base for their international operations. Mob moguls are in residence as respected businessmen. Jonathan Winer, a former State Department expert, states categorically that, "There is not a major Russian organized crime figure whom we are tracking who does not carry an Israeli passport."

     The Brighton Beach Boys. In the 1970s more than 40,000 Russian Jews settled in Brighton Beach, a former working-class Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. One of those immigrants was Marat Balagula, who was born in Orenburg, Russia, in 1943. Once settled in Brighton Beach, he turned the Organizatsiya, the local mob, into a very profitable transnational criminal society. His most spectacular success was in the gasoline bootlegging business. Marat gained control of fourteen gas stations, formed two fuel dealerships and proceeded to buy gas from a corporation owned by the Nayfeld brothers. This setup provided a scheme to avoid paying billions of dollars of gasoline taxes.

     The scam worked as follows: Taxes were collected at the pump. Instead of turning the cash over to the government, the money was pocketed and disappeared without knowledge of the IRS. A number of shell distributorships were the key. One of these companies would purchase a shipment of gasoline and then make a number of paper transfers. At the end of the blizzard of paper would be a dummy company that was required to pay the taxes to the IRS. Instead, the company sold the gas at cut-rate prices to independent retailers with a phony invoice, stamped "All Taxes Paid." By the time the IRS came looking for the taxes due, the revenue agents were stymied by a twisting paper trail that lead to a dead end. There was no one person or company that could be held accountable for the non-payment.

     The scam became the biggest tax heist in U. S. history. The Russian mobsters by 1985 had stolen as much as $8 billion a year by evading state and federal taxes. Rampant cheating by gas stations had always been a problem, and often ignored. What the Russians did was to raise it from penny-ante chump change to a well-organized and lucrative racket. Shell corporations are frequently used as a means of pocketing what otherwise belongs to the government.

"On August 8, 2005, Garri Grigorian, a 43-year-old Russian living in Sandy, Utah, was sentenced to 51 months imprisonment and ordered to pay $17.42 million in restitution to the Russian government for his role in laundering over $130 million on behalf of Moscow-based Intellect Bank and its customers through bank accounts located in Sandy, Utah." (From a Department of Justice report on shell corporations, November 14, 2006)

     Marat Balagula received an 8-year sentence for credit card fraud and, in 1992, an additional ten years for evading federal taxes on the sale of four million gallons of gasoline. When questioned, he was not forthcoming regarding Russian mob activity in the U.S. " No," he insisted, "there is no such thing as the Russian Mafiya. Two or three friends hang out together. That�s a Mafiya?"

     At first, investigators recognized Russian crime as a growing problem, but not an organized one. Food stamp scams and the like were treated as isolated cases committed by street criminals, who were not mobbed-up in mafia-like relationships. Further investigations were to reveal that the Brighton Beach boys did in fact constitute a criminal enterprise, and had corrupted the local cops who were on their payrolls so that were able to act freely and openly without threat of arrest. "Cops in cheap suits who looked like gangsters worked the door as bouncers and sat at the front tables in Russian mob joints."

     "Nobody takes the Russian Jewish mob seriously," said a NYPD detective. "The lack of interest of law enforcement has given them time to grow." A major roadblock was the super sensitivity to the Jewish aspect of émigré crime. The Jewish leaders worried that the resulting negative publicity from acknowledging the existence of Russian Jewish mobsters, of which there were an estimated 5000 in the New York metro region, would foster a wave of anti-Semitism.

"The Mafiya dominates Russia, and has Eastern Europe in a bear hug. It is also turning Western Europe into its financial satrapy, and the Caribbean and Latin America have quickly become sandy playpens for coke and weapons� deals with Colombian drug lords. There are few nations where the Russian mob does not hold some influence, making efforts to combat it ever more difficult." (R.I. Friedman, 2000)

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