Russian mafia

Russian Mafia
Founding location Russia, former Soviet Union
Territory Active in many parts of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union; throughout Russia, parts of the United States, Canada, Spain, Portugal, France, Hungary
Ethnicity Predominantly Russians and former Soviet nationalities
Membership unknown in Russia [1] 1996
Criminal activities Human trafficking, racketeering, drug trafficking, extortion, murder, robbery, smuggling, arms trafficking, gambling, bribery, fencing, pornography and fraud
Allies Italian-American Mafia, Armenian mafia, Israeli mafia, Triads, Corsican mafia, Italian mafias (Sicilian Mafia, 'Ndrangheta, and Camorra), Irish mob, Serbian mafia, Mexican Mafia, Bulgarian mafia, Albanian mafia, Macedonian mafia, Greek mafia, Romanian mafia, Turkish mafia, Los Zetas

The Russian Mafia (Russian: рoссийская мафия, translit. rossiyskaya mafiya,[2] Russian: русская мафия, translit. russkaya mafiya), sometimes referred to as Bratva (Russian: братва: "brothers"/"brotherhood"), is a collective of various organized crime elements originating in the former Soviet Union. Although not a singular criminal organization, most of the individual groups share similar goals and organizational structures that define them as part of the loose overall association.

Organized crime in Russia began in the imperial period of the Tsars, but it was not until the Soviet era that vory v zakone ("thieves-in-law") emerged as leaders of prison groups in gulags (Soviet prison labor camps), and their honor code became more defined. After World War II, the death of Joseph Stalin, and the fall of the Soviet Union, more gangs emerged in a flourishing black market, exploiting the unstable governments of the former Republics, and at its highest point, even controlling as much as two-thirds of the Russian economy. Louis Freeh, former director of the FBI, said that the Russian mafia posed the greatest threat to U.S. national security in the mid-1990s.[3]

In modern times, there are as many as 6,000 different groups,[4] with more than 200 of them having a global reach. Criminals of these various groups are either former prison members, corrupt officials and business leaders, people with ethnic ties, or people from the same region with shared criminal experiences and leaders.[5] However, the existence of such groups has been debated. 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",[6] while in August 2010, Alain Bauer, a French criminologist, said that it "is one of the best structured criminal organizations in Europe, with a quasi-military operation."[7]



The Russian mafia can be traced back to Russia's imperial period, which began in the 1700s, in the form of banditry and thievery. Most of the population were peasants in poverty at the time, and criminals who stole from government entities and divided profits among the people earned Robin Hood-like status, being viewed as protectors of the poor and becoming folk heroes. In time, the Vorovskoy Mir (Thieves' World) emerged as these criminals grouped and started their own code of conduct that was based on strict loyalty with one another and opposition against the government. When the Bolshevik Revolution came around in 1917, the Thieves' World was alive and active. Vladimir Lenin attempted to wipe them out after being robbed by a gang of highwaymen (who also performed an attempted rape), but failed, and the criminals survived into Joseph Stalin's reign.[8]

1917–1991: Soviet era

During Stalin's reign as ruler, millions of criminals were sent to gulags (Soviet labor camps), where powerful criminals worked their way up to become vory v zakone ("thieves-in-law"). These criminal elite often conveyed their status through complicated tattoos, symbols still used by Russian mobsters.[8]

After Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II, Stalin was desperate for more men to fight for the nation, offering prisoners freedom if they joined the army. Many flocked to help out in the war, but this act betrayed codes of the Thieves' World that one must not ally with the government. When the war was over, however, Stalin sent them back to prison. Those who refused to fight in the war referred to the traitors as cyka ("bitch"), and the latter landed at the bottom of the "hierarchy". Outcast, the suki separated from the others and formed their own groups and power bases by collaborating with prison officials, eventually gaining the luxury of comfortable positions. Bitterness between the groups erupted into a series of Bitch Wars from 1945 to 1953 with many killed every day. The prison officials encouraged the violence, seeing it as a way to rid the prisons of criminals.[5][8]

After the death of Stalin, around eight million inmates were released from gulags. Those that survived the imprisonment and Bitch Wars became a new breed of criminal, no longer bound to the laws of the old Thieves' World. They adopted an "every-man-for-himself" attitude that meant cooperating with the government if necessary. As corruption spread throughout the Soviet government, the criminal underworld began to flourish. This corruption was common during the Brezhnev era, and the nomenklatura (the power elite of the country, usually corrupt officials) ran the country along with criminal bosses. In the 1970s, small illegal businesses sprang up throughout the country, with the government ignoring them, and the black market thrived. Then, in the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev loosened up restrictions on private businesses, allowing them to grow legally, but by then, the Soviet Union was already beginning to collapse.[5][8]

Also during the 1970s and 1980s, the United States expanded its immigration policies, allowing Soviet Jews, with most settling in a southern Brooklyn area known as Brighton Beach (sometimes nicknamed as "Little Odessa"). Here is where Russian organized crime began in the US.[5][9] The earliest known case of Russian crime in the area was in the mid-1970s by the "Potato Bag Gang," a group of con artists disguised as merchants that told customers that they were selling antique gold rubles for cheap, but in fact, gave them bags of potatoes when bought in thousands. By 1983, the head of Russian organized crime in Brighton Beach was Evsei Agron.[10]

Pauol Mirzoyan was a prime target among other mobsters including rival Boris Goldberg and his organization,[11] and in May 1985 Agron was assassinated. Boris "Biba" Nayfeld, his bodyguard, moved on to employ under Marat Balagula, who was believed to have succeeded Agron's authority. In the following year, Balagula fled the country after he was convicted in a fraud scheme of Merrill Lynch customers, and was found in Frankfurt, West Germany in 1989, where he was extradited back to the US and sentenced to eight years in prison.[10]

Balagula would later be convicted on a separate $360,000 credit card fraud in 1992.[12] Nayfield took Balagula's place, partnering with the "Polish Al Capone", Ricardo Fanchiniin, in an import-export business and setting up a heroin business.[13] In 1990, his former friend, Monya Elson, back from a six-year prison sentence in Israel, returned to America and set up a rival heroin business, culminating in a Mafia turf war.[14]

1992–2000: Growth and internationalization

When the USSR collapsed and a free market economy emerged, organized criminal groups began to take over Russia's economy, with many ex-KGB soldiers and veterans of the Afghan war offering their skills to the crime bosses.[3] Gangster summit meetings had taken place in hotels and restaurants shortly before the Soviet's dissolution, so that top vory v zakone could agree on who would rule what, and set plans on how to take over the post-Communist state. It was agreed upon that Vyacheslav "Yaponchik" Ivankov would be sent to Brighton Beach in 1992, allegedly because he was killing too many people in Russia and also to take control of Russian organized crime in North America.[9] Within a year, he built an international operation that included, but was not limited to, narcotics, money laundering, and prostitution and made ties with the American Mafia and Colombian drug cartels, eventually extending to Miami, Los Angeles, and Boston.[8] Those who went against him were usually killed.

Prior to Ivankov's arrival, Balagula's downfall left a void for America's next vory v zakone. Monya Elson, leader of Monya's Brigada (a gang that similarly operated from Russia to Los Angeles to New York), was in a feud with Boris Nayfeld, with bodies dropping on both sides.[14] Ivankov's arrival virtually ended the feud, although Elson would later challenge his power as well, and a number of attempts were made to end the former's life.[15] Nayfield and Elson would eventually be arrested in January 1994 (released in 1998)[16] and in Italy in 1995, respectively.[17]

Ivankov's reign, too, ended in June 1995 when a $3.5 million extortion attempt on two Russian businessmen, Alexander Volkov and Vladimir Voloshin, ended in an FBI arrest that resulted in a ten-year maximum security prison sentence.[5][8] Before his arrest and besides his operations in America, Ivankov regularly flew around Europe and Asia to maintain ties with his fellow mobsters (like members of the Solntsevskaya Bratva), as well as reinforce ties with others. This did not stop other people from denying him growing power. In one instance, Ivankov attempted to buy out Georgian boss Valeri "Globus" Glugech's drug importation business. When the latter refused the offer, he and his top associates were shot dead. A summit held in May 1994 in Vienna rewarded him with what was left of Glugech's business. Two months later, Ivankov got into another altercation with drug kingpin and head of the Orekhovskaya gang, Segei "Sylvester" Timofeyev, ending with the latter murdered a month later.[18]

Back in Eastern Europe in May 1995, crime boss Semion Mogilevich held a different summit meeting of Russian mafia bosses in his U Holubu restaurant in Anděl, a neighborhood of Prague. The excuse to bring them together was that it was a birthday party for Victor Averin, the second-in-command of the Solntsevskaya Bratva. However, Major Tomas Machacek of the Czech police got wind of an anonymous tip-off that claimed that the Solntsevskaya were planning to assassinate Mogilevich at the location (it was rumored that Mogilevich and Solntsevskaya leader Sergei Mikhailov had a dispute over $5 million), and the police successfully raided the meeting. 200 guests were arrested, but no charges were put against them; only key Russian mafia members were banned from the country, most of whom moved to Hungary.[19]

One person that wasn't there, though, was Mogilevich himself. He claimed that "[b]y the time I arrived at U Holubu, everything was already in full swing, so I went into a neighboring hotel and sat in the bar there until about five or six in the morning."[20][21] Mikhailov would later be arrested in Switzerland in October 1996 on numerous charges,[15] including that he was the head of a powerful Russian mafia group, but was exonerated and released two years later after evidence was not enough to prove much.[22][23]

The worldwide extent of Russian organized crime wasn't realized until Ludwig "Tarzan" Fainberg was arrested in January 1997, primarily because of global arms dealing. In 1990, Fainberg moved from Brighton Beach to Miami and opened up a strip club called Porky's, which soon became a popular hangout for underworld criminals. Fainberg himself gained a reputation as an ambassador among international crime groups, becoming especially close to Juan Almeida, a Colombian cocaine dealer. Planning to expand his cocaine business, Fainberg acted as an intermediary between Almeida and the corrupt Russian military. He helped him get six Russian military helicopters in 1993, and in the following year, helped arrange to buy a submarine for cocaine smuggling. Unfortunately for the two of them, federal agents had been keeping a close eye on Fainberg for months. Alexander Yasevich, an associate of the Russian military contact and an undercover DEA agent, was sent to verify the illegal dealing, and in 1997, Fainberg was finally arrested in Miami. Facing the possibility of life imprisonment, the latter agreed for his testimony against Almeida in exchange for a shorter sentence, which ended up being 33 months.[8][9]


As the 21st century dawned, the Russian mafia remained alive and well. New Mafia bosses sprang up, while imprisoned ones were released. Among the released were Johanithan Pochival Slokavich, Marat Balagula and Vyacheslav Ivankov, all three in 2004.[24][25] The latter was extradited to Russia, but was jailed once more for his alleged murders of two Turks in a Moscow restaurant in 1992; he was cleared of all charges and released in 2005. Four years later, he was assassinated by a shot in the stomach from a sniper.[25] Meanwhile, Monya Elson and Leonid Roytman were arrested in March 2006 for an unsuccessful murder plot against two Kiev-based businessmen.[26]

In 2009, FBI agents in Moscow targeted two suspected Mafia leaders and two other corrupt businessmen. One of the leaders is Yevgeny Dvoskin, a criminal who had been in prison with Ivankov in 1995 and was deported in 2001 for breaking immigration regulations; the other is Konstantin "Gizya" Ginzburg, who is reportedly the current "big boss" of Russian organized crime in America, it being suspected that Ivankov handed over control to him.[27][28] Some sources state that Sheaib was present in Eastern Europe right before the death of Vyacheslav Ivankov as well as Aslan Usoyan.

In the same year, Semion Mogilevich was placed on the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list for his involvement in a complex multimillion-dollar scheme that defrauded investors in the stock of his company YBM Magnex International, swindling them out of $150 million.[29] He was indicted in 2003 and arrested in 2008 in Russia on tax fraud charges, but because the US does not have an extradition treaty with Russia, he was released on bail.[30] Monya Elson said that he's the most powerful mobster in the world in 1998.[31]

Around the world, Russian mafia groups have popped up as dominating particular areas: Alec Simchuk and his group ripped off and robbed unsuspecting tourists and businessmen in South Florida, leading to Rick Brodsky of the FBI to say that "Eurasian organised crime is our no. 1 priority";[32] Russian organized crime has a rather large stronghold in the city of Atlanta where members are distinguished by their tattoos. Russian organized crime was reported to have a stronger grip in the French Riviera region and Spain in 2010;[7] and Russia was branded as a virtual "mafia state" according to the WikiLeaks cables.[33]

In 2009, Russian mafia groups had been said to reach over 50 countries and, in 2010, had up to 300,000 members.[34]

Structure and composition

"They're not carefully structured Cosa Nostra–type families... They're loose structures of networks, but they draw on people from a number of different areas."
 — James Finckenauer, author of Russian Mafia In America[8]

Bratva structure

Note that all these positions are not always official titles, but rather are understood names for roles that the individual performs.

In the Russian Mafia, "Vor" (plural: Vory) (literally, "Thief") is an honorary title denoting a made man. The honor of becoming a Vor is only given when the recruit shows considerable leadership skills, personal ability, intellect and charisma. A Pakhan or another high-ranking member of an organization can decide if the recruit will receive such title. When you become a member of the Vor-world you have to accept the code of the Vor v Zakone ("Thief within the Law").[36][37]

Although Russian criminal groups vary in their structure, there have been attempts to devise a model of how they work. One such model (possibly outdated by now, as it is based on the old style of Soviet criminal enterprises) works out like this:

  1. Elite group – led by a Pakhan who is involved in management, organization and ideology. This is the highest group controls both support group and security group.
  2. Security group – is led by one of his spies. His job is to make sure the organization keeps running and also keeps the peace between the organizations and other criminal groups and also paying off the right people. This group works with the Elite group and is equal in power with the Support groups. Is in charge of security and in intelligence.
  3. Support group – is led by one of his spies. His job is to watch over the working unit collecting the money while supervising their criminal activities. This group works with the elite group and is equal in power with the Security group. They plan a specific crime for a specialized group or choose who carries out the operation.
  4. Working Unit – There are four Brigadiers running a criminal activity in the working unit. Each Brigade is controlled by a Brigadier. This is the lowest group working with only the Support group. The group is involved in burglars, thieves, prostitution, extortion, street gangs and other crimes.

Notable individual groups

Groups based in and around the City of Moscow:

Groups based in other parts of Russia and the former Soviet Union:

Groups based in and around the The United States of America:

Groups based in other areas:

See also


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  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Mallory, Stephen L. Understanding Organized Crime. Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2007, p. 73-87.
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