The Russian Mafia (Russkaya Mafiya) is a term used to refer to the collective of various organized crime syndicates originating in the former Soviet Union. Most of the individual groups share similar goals and organizational structures that define them as part of a loose overall association.

They are also referred to as Bratva (Russian: “brotherhood”), Organizatsiya (Russian: “the organization”), or the Red Mafia (Russian: Krasnaya Mafiya).

After World War II, the death of Joseph Stalin, and the fall of the Soviet Union, gangs emerged in a flourishing black market, exploiting the unstable governments of the former Republics, and at their highest point, even controlling as much as two-thirds of the Russian economy.

In modern times, there are as many as 6,000 different groups, with more than 200 of them having a global reach.

However, the very existence of such groups has been the subject of some debate.

They naturally provide great fodder for the movies.

The 1994 film “Little Odessa”, featuring Tim Roth, Edward Furlong, Moira Kelly and Vanessa Redgrave, centers on the activities of the Russian Mafia in Brighton Beach, New York.

Video comes courtesy of YouTube:

That’s Hollywood.

Here’s some history:


The Russian Mafia – in the form of banditry and thievery – can be traced back to Russia’s imperial period, which began in the 1700s. Most of the population were poor peasants 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, and folk heroes.

In time, the Vorovski Mir (Thieves’ World) emerged, as these criminals grouped together and started their own code of conduct that was based on strict loyalty to one another and opposition to the government.

When the Bolshevik Revolution occurred in 1917, the Thieves’ World was fully active. Vladimir Lenin attempted to wipe them out after being robbed by a gang of highwaymen, but the criminals survived into Joseph Stalin’s reign.

The Soviet Era

When Stalin seized power after the death of Lenin, he sought to crush the Thieves’ World, ordering the execution of thousands of criminals, and also his political opponents.

Millions of others 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 displayed their status through complicated tattoos – a practice that survives today, among Russian mobsters.

World War II

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 the code of the Thieves’ World that one must not ally oneself with the government.

When the war was over, Stalin sent the released criminals back to prison.

The Bitch Wars

Those who had refused to fight in the war referred to the traitors as suki (“bitch”), and these outcasts landed at the bottom of the criminal hierarchy.

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 in a series of Bitch Wars from 1945 to 1953, with many killed every day. Prison officials encouraged the violence, seeing it as a way to rid the prisons of criminals.

Post-Stalin Era

After the death of Stalin, around eight million inmates were released from the 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 most common during the Brezhnev era, and the nomenklatura (the power elite of the country; usually corrupt officials) ran the country – allegedly with criminal bosses.

In the 1970s, small illegal businesses sprang up throughout the country (with the government ignoring them), and the black market thrived.

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.

The Land of Opportunity

During the 1970s and 1980s, America relaxed its immigration policies, allowing Soviet Jews and criminals to enter the country, with most settling in a southern Brooklyn area known as Brighton Beach (sometimes nicknamed “Little Odessa”).

The neighborhood became an incubator for Russian organized crime in America.

The earliest known case of Russian crime in the area was in the mid-1970s, when the “Potato Bag Gang” – a group of con artists disguised as merchants – told customers that they were selling antique gold rubles on the cheap. In fact, they gave them bags of potatoes, bought in thousands.

By 1983, the head of Russian organized crime in Brighton Beach was Evsei Agron.

He was a prime target for other mobsters, including rival Boris Goldberg and his organization, and in May 1985, Agron was assassinated.

Boris “Biba” Nayfeld, his bodyguard, moved on to work under Marat Balagula, who was believed to have inherited Agron’s authority.

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. From there, he was extradited back to the US and sentenced to eight years in prison.

Balagula would later be convicted on a separate $360,000 credit card fraud in 1992.

Nayfeld took Balagula’s place, partnering with the “Polish Al Capone”, Ricardo Fanchiniin, in an import-export business, and setting up a heroin trade.

In 1990, Nayfeld’s 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.

The Ivankov Era

When the USSR collapsed and a free market economy emerged, 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 that Vyacheslav “Yaponchik” Ivankov would be sent to Brighton Beach in 1992 to take control of Russian organized crime in North America – allegedly because he was killing too many people in Russia.

Within a year, he built an international operation that included, but was not limited to, narcotics, money laundering, and prostitution, and had made ties with the American Mafia and Colombian drug cartels, eventually extending to Miami, Los Angeles, and Boston.

Those who went against him were usually killed.

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.

Ivankov’s arrival virtually ended the feud between Elson and Nayfeld.

Nayfeld and Elson were eventually arrested in January 1994, and in Italy in 1995, respectively.

Ivankov’s own reign ended in June 1995, when a $3.5 million attempt to extort two Russian businessmen (Alexander Volkov and Vladimir Voloshin) ended in an FBI arrest that resulted in a ten-year maximum security prison sentence.

Hands Across the Water

The worldwide extent of Russian organized crime wasn’t realized until Ludwig “Tarzan” Fainberg was arrested in January 1997, primarily due to global arms dealing.

In 1990, Fainberg had 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 to 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 the following year, helped arrange to buy a submarine for cocaine smuggling.

However, 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 deal, and in 1997, Fainberg was arrested in Miami.

Facing the possibility of life imprisonment, Fainberg agreed to testify against Almeida in exchange for a shorter sentence – which ended up being 33 months.

2001 – Present

As the 21st century dawned, new Russian Mafia bosses sprung up, while imprisoned ones were released.

Among those released were Pachovich Sloat, Marat Balagula and Vyacheslav Ivankov (the latter two in 2004).

Ivankov was extradited to Russia, but 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.

Meanwhile, Monya Elson, along with Leonid Roytman, was arrested in March 2006 for an unsuccessful murder plot against two Kiev-based businessmen.

In 2009, FBI agents in Moscow targeted two suspected Mafia leaders and two other corrupt businessmen. One of the leaders was Yevgeny Dvoskin, a criminal who had been in prison with Ivankov in 1995, and was deported in 2001 for breaking immigration regulations.

The other was Konstantin “Gizya” Ginzburg, who is reportedly the current “big boss” of Russian organized crime in America (it was suspected that Ivankov handed over his control to him).

In the same year, Semion Mogilevich was placed on the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list for his involvement in a complex multi-million dollar scheme that defrauded investors in the stock of his company YBM Magnex International, swindling them out of $150 million.

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.

Russian organized crime was reported to have a stronger grip in the French Riviera region and Spain in 2010, and Russia was branded as a virtual “Mafia state” according to the WikiLeaks cables. The Jewish branch of the Russian Mafia has created tremendous problems for the Israeli government.

As of 2009, Russian Mafia groups have been said to reach over 50 countries and, as of 2010, have up to 300,000 members.

Business is booming.

That’s it, for this one.

I hope you’ll join me, for our next tale.

Till then.