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The Russian Mafia ( , Russkaya mafiya) or Bratva ( ; slang for "brotherhood", which applies to all gangs, including rivals) — often transliterated as Mafiya — are names designating a diverse group of organized crime syndicates originating in the former Soviet Unionmarker, Russiamarker and the CIS. Since the 1991 fall of the USSR, these groups have amassed considerable worldwide power and influence.


Organized crime existed in Russiamarker since the days of the Tsars and Imperial Russiamarker in the form of banditry and thievery, known as Vory v zakone or "thieves in law". This class of criminal had to abide by certain rules in the prison system. One such rule was that cooperation with the authorities of any kind was forbidden. During World War II some prisoners made a deal with the government to join the armed forces in return for a reduced sentence, but upon their return to prison they were attacked and killed by inmates who remained loyal to the rules of the thieves.

During the Leonid Brezhnev era when the Soviet economy took a downhill turn, the Vory would take control of the black market with the help of corrupt officials, supplying products such as electronics which were hard to reach for the ordinary Soviet citizen.

1990s and fall of the Soviet Union

The real breakthrough for criminal organizations occurred during the economic disaster and mass emigration of the 1990s that followed the fall of the Soviet Unionmarker. Desperate for money, many former government workers turned to crime, others joined the former Soviet citizens who moved overseas, and the Russian Mafia became a natural extension of this trend. Former KGBmarker agents, sportsmen and veterans of the Afghan and Chechen Wars, now finding themselves out-of-work but with experience in areas which could prove useful in crime, joined the increasing crime wave. Widespread corruption, poverty and distrust of authorities only contributed to the rise of organized crime. Contract killings reached an all-time high with many gangland murders taking place, a substantial number remaining unsolved. The new criminal class of Russia took on a more Westernized and businesslike approach to organized crime as the more code-of-honor based Vory faded into extinction. By the late nineties it was believed that Semion Mogilevich ("Don Semyon") had become the "boss of all bosses" of most Russian Mafia syndicates in the world, and was considered by the FBI to be the most powerful crime-boss on earth.

The former Soviet Bloc's opening up to the world and the internationalization of its economy also gave the Russian mafia connections to other criminal organizations around the world such as the Chinese Triads or the Sicilian Cosa Nostra. Connections with Latin American drug cartels allowed the Russian mafia to import cocaine into the country.

Emigration with Jewish identities into Israel and America

Widespread emigration in the 1990s allowed Russian criminal organizations to spread themselves further around the world. Prior to the collapse of communism some limited numbers of Russian Jews were allowed to emigrate from the Soviet Union if they could prove they had Jewish descent, and criminals took advantage of this if they were themselves Jewish, acquiring Jewish identity papers to be granted the permission to leave the country that had been granted by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s. According to a report, 573.000 refugees, mostly Jews, evangelical Christians and Catholics. resettled in US since 1975, and as of 2001, The Russian Jewish community in the US estimated between 750,000 and 1 million and twice high by some other estimates, while "an estimated 1 million more Jews have immigrated to Israel" during the collapse of USSR.

Also, some other non-Jewish individuals and criminals obtained falsified documents in an attempt to prove they had Jewish ancestry, in order to be issued with Jewish identity papers so they could be granted exit-visas to emigrate abroad. In the United Statesmarker a key location for Russian organized crime was the Russian-speaking mostly Jewish community of Brighton Beachmarker in Brooklynmarker, New Yorkmarker.

Emmigration with German identities

An estimated 3,5 million Russians emigrated from Russia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, as these had ethnic German descent from their forefathers that settled in Russia in the 18th century. However, over time these Germans had already assimilated and were considered fully Russian. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Germany opened for these immigrants to receive German citizenship, and thus, Russian organized crime could yet again expand, this time in the European Union.

First major member prosecuted in the US

Vyacheslav "Yaponchik" Ivankov was the first major ethnically Russian organized crime figure prosecuted by the U.S. government, running his extortion operations out of Brighton Beachmarker. Russian organized crime has spread to many other countries as well including Israelmarker, Hungarymarker, Canadamarker, South Africa and Spainmarker.

Individual gangs

  • The Solntsevskaya bratva, or Solntsevskaya brotherhood (Russian: Солнцевская братва, the Solntsevo District gang), was one of—if not the—most powerful organized crime group in the world and the most dangerous operating in Moscowmarker.

  • Dolgoprudnenskaya (Долгопруденская) was a Russian mafia organization and was considered one of the largest groups of organized crime operating in Moscowmarker. It was really named after Dolgoprudniymarker, which is a Moscow suburb. It was founded in 1988 and was allegedly very influential.

  • The Obshina (Община, "community" in Russian), or Chechen mafia, was a formidable organized crime and paramilitary group. According to experts, ethnic Chechen criminal gangs once formed the most dominant minority criminal group in Russia. It is believed some gangs may have ties to Chechen militant factions.

  • The Orekhovskaya gang (Ореховская банда, again, from Orekhovo) was a powerful criminal group in between the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Notable Russian mafiosi

  • Evsei Agron (regarded as the first "Don" or "Godfather" of New York's Russian mafia. Agron was a Vor and immigrated to the U.S. in 1975 and quickly set-up a base of operations in the mostly Jewish-Russian community of Brighton Beachmarker, Brooklynmarker. He was highly feared for his violent tendencies and eagerness to use violence in order to enforce his authority within New York's Russian underworld. By aligning himself with New York's powerful, influential and feared Gambino crime family, his position as New York's reigning Russian Godfather was enhanced. He was assassinated in May 1985. His title and operations were taken over by his top advisor, Marat Balagula and his former driver and bodyguard Boris Nayfeld.
  • Marat Balagula (Ukrainian-Jewish crime boss and former top advisor to Brighton Beach Godfather Evsei Agron, whose mantle and operations he took over after Agron was murdered in 1985. Balagula was suspected of ordering the hit on his former boss. Balagula was the originator of a billion-dollar gasoline tax racket and a close associate of Lucchese crime family, who protected his interests in the gasoline tax rackets. Released from American prison in 2004.)
  • Viktor Bout (GRU major turned international arms merchant; former international fugitive; now awaiting extradition to the United States.)
  • Yuri Brokhin (Famed expatriate Russian dissident/international drug dealer and jewel thief; murdered 1982.)
  • Vitali Dyomochka (Russian mobster who produced a TV series chronicling his own activities.)
  • Monya Elson (Moldovian-Jew, one of the most feared professional killers in the Russian mafia; convicted of three murders and imprisoned.)
  • Vadim Safronov (Vor v Zakone, controls criminal activities in Tver, Russia; since 1992-2012 jailed in Siberia.)
  • Nikolai Radev (Minor Australian crime boss. Murdered outside his home in 2003 during the infamous Melbourne Gangland War.)
  • Ludwig "Tarzan" Fainberg (Ukrainian-Jew, Southern Florida intermediary between the Medellin drug cartel and the Russian Mafia; deported to Israel.)
  • Vyacheslav "Yaponchik" Ivankov (America's most powerful vor v zakone; deported to Russia.) On June 8 1995, Ivankov was arrested on Extortion in the United States by the FBImarker, convicted, and jailed. In 2004, was released from prison and extradited to Russia. On July 13, 2004 Ivankov was deported to Russiamarker to face murder charges over two Turkishmarker nationals who were shot in a Moscow restaurant following a heated argument in 1992. On July 28, 2009, at around 19:20 Moscow time (1520 GMT), Ivankov was shot while leaving a restaurant on Khoroshevskoye Road in Moscow. A sniper rifle was found abandoned in a nearby parked vehicle. Having died from his injuries seventy-three days later, on October 9, 2009, Ivankov was buried in Moscowmarker on October 13, 2009.
  • Zakhar "Shakro" Kalashov (ethnically Georgian International vor v zakone boss; jailed in Spain.)
  • Vladimir Kumarin (Saint Petersburgmarker-based boss of Tambov Gang crime group.)
  • Otar "Otarik" Kvantrishvili (ethnically Georgian Moscow extortionist; murdered in 1994.)
  • Ruslan Labazanov (Chechen crime boss; murdered in 1996.)
  • Sergei Mikhailov (Moscow-based head of Solntsevskaya bratva crime group.)
  • Semion Mogilevich - Billionaire Ukrainian Jew capo di tutti capi of Russian mafias. Known as the "brainy don", " he is considered by the FBImarker to be the most dangerous gangster in the world " and the "boss of all bosses" with in the Russian Mafia. Mogilevich is nicknamed "The Brainy Don" because of his business acumen and the college degree in economics from the Lviv University that he holds. In 2003 the FBI put Mogilevich on their Wanted List for participation in the scheme to defraud investors in Canadian company YBM Magnex International Inc. Frustrated in their previous efforts unsuccessfully to charge him for arms trafficking and prostitution, they had now settled on the large-scale fraud charges as their best hope of running him to ground. He was arrested in Moscowmarker on January 24, 2008, for suspected tax evasion. His bail was placed on July 24, 2008 by Taylor Piercefield. On October 22, 2009 he was named by the FBI as the 494th fugitive to be placed on the Ten Most Wanted list.
  • Boris Nayfeld, known as "Beeba", was an Orthodox Jewish gang leader, former driver and bodyguard for Brighton Beach Godfather Evsei Agron. After Agron's murder in 1985 he rose through the ranks of the Russian criminal underworld and became an international drug kingpin.
  • Khozh-Ahmed Noukhaev, Chechen crime boss; missing and believed dead.
  • Mikhail Rabo, formerly respected member of the Berlin Jewish community who was arrested for secretly heading one of Russia’s largest and most powerful organized crime groups.
  • Alexander Solonik, ethnically Greek notorious professional assassin, who was murdered in Athensmarker in 1997 by the Orekhovskaya banda.
  • Nikolay "Hoza" Suleimanov, Chechen head of Obshina crime group; murdered in 1994.
  • Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, ethnically Uzbek Arms dealer and accused Olympic fixer.
  • Movladi Atlangeriyev, Chechen crime boss, kidnapped in 2008.
  • Sergei Mavrodi ethnically Greek creator of MMM Ponzi scheme

Foreign businessmen and the Russian Mafia

An unknown number of foreign businessmen, believed to be in the low thousands, arrived in Russia from all over the world during the early and mid 1990s to seek their fortune and to cash in on the transition from a communist to a free market/capitalist society. This period was referred to by many of the businessmen as the "second great gold rush".

Generally, 1990 to 1998 was a wild and unstable time for most foreign businessmen operating in Russia. Dangerous battles with the Russian Mob occurred, with many being killed or wounded. The Mafia welcomed the foreign businessmen and their expertise in facilitating business and making things happen in a stagnant and new economy. The Mafia considered them as a good source of hard currency, to be extorted under the usual guise of "protection money". Many different Mafia groups would fiercely compete to be able to "protect" a certain businessman; in exchange, the businessman would not have to worry about having more than one group showing up demanding tribute from him. Many foreign businessmen left Russia after these incidents.

Popular culture references

Video games

The Russian mafia are present in many video games, mostly as enemies to the player, including Max Payne, Stranglehold, Republic: The Revolution and the Grand Theft Auto series. They appear as a possible ally in Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction. In September 2009, the browser game Mafia Wars added Russia as a locale and featured the Mafiya as one of two opposing allegiances (the other being the Vory). Recently, in the console game Grand Theft Auto IV, fictional members of Russian and other East European criminal organizations have been featured as key elements in the development of the game's storyline.


Though not as prominent as their Italian-American counterparts, Russian or FSU mobsters have appeared in a number of Hollywood movies usually as villains or antagonists. These include GoldenEye,Lord of war, RocknRolla, The Jackal, 25th Hour, The Boondock Saints, Ronin, Police Story 4: First Strike, Be Cool, Jungle 2 Jungle, Training Day, We Own the Night, Maximum Risk, Red Heat, Bad Boys II and The Dark Knight. Recently, the David Cronenberg film Eastern Promises dealt in a fictional manner with the Russian mob in London.

There have of course been many Russian movies on the subject, probably the most well-known of which is Brother and Brother 2. The anti-hero protagonist, Danila, is a Chechen war veteran who becomes a contract killer in St Petersburg. The film and its sequel became wildly popular amongst the Russian youth. Killer (1998) is a take on organized crime in Kazahkstan.




See also


  1. Glenny, Misha (2008), McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, passim.
  2. Varlam Shalamov, Essays on Criminal World, "Bitch War" ( Shalamov's essay online ) in: Varlam Shalamov (1998) "Complete Works" (Варлам Шаламов. Собрание сочинений в четырех томах), vol. 2, printed by publishers Vagrius and Khudozhestvennaya Literatura, ISBN 5-280-03163-1, ISBN 5-280-03162-3.
  3. A. V. Kuchinsky Prison Encyclopedia, (Кучинский А.В. - Тюремная энциклопедия, a fragment online )
  4. BBC News - The Rise and rise of the Russian mafia.
  5. Vory v Zakone has hallowed place in Russian criminal lore.
  6. Glenny, Misha (2008), McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, pp 72-73.
  7. Glenny (2008), Op. cit., pg 77.
  8. MSNBC- Russian mob trading arms for cocaine with Colombia rebels.
  9. Migration of the Russian Diaspora after the Breakup of the Soviet Union, Journal article by Timothy Heleniak; Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 57, 2004
  11. FBI Official Website - Vyacheslav Kirillovich Ivankov.
  12. BBC News - Spain raids 'major Russian gang'.
  13. Oleg Liakhovich, "A Mob by Any Other Name", The Moscow News.
  14. B. Ohr, Effective Methods to Combat Transnational Organized Crime in Criminal Justice Processes, U.S. Dept. of Justice.
  15. Домашняя библиотека компромата Сергея Горшкова (Home library of Sergei Gorshkov).
  16. US, COMM, PERM, p. 201.
  17. Friedman, Robert I. Red Mafiya: How the Russian Mob Has Invaded America. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2000.
  18. The HUMINT Offensive from Putin's Chekist State Anderson, Julie (2007), International Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence, 20:2, 258 - 316, p. 309.
  19. Wise guys, tough guys, dead guys] John Silvester, The Age December 14, 2003.
  20. Why gangland's bloody code is hard to crack John Silvester, The Age April 20, 2003.
  21. BBC News (July 28, 2009). Russian mafia boss Yaponchik shot. BBC News, July 28, 2009. Retrieved from
  22. В Москве умер Вячеслав Иваньков — «вор в законе» Япончик
  23. Kavkaz Center - Georgian Police Seize House of Top Russian Mafiosi.
  24. Jürgen Roth, Die Gangster aus dem Osten, Europa Verlag Publishers.
  25. Bandits, Gangsters and the Mafia (Martin McCauley).
  26. Hughes, James, Chechnya: The Causes of a Protrated Post-Soviet Conflict, 2001.
  27. BBC News- Alleged Russian mafia boss cleared.
  28. Semyon Mogilevich, the 'East European mafia boss', awaiting his trial in Moscow jail.
  29. Glenny (2008), Op. cit., pp. 72-73.
  30. Aleksandr Zhilin, The Shadow of Chechen Crime Over Moscow, The Jamestown Foundation 1999.
  31. Russian mob's Jewish godfather Eldad Beck,
  32. BBC article, with information on Alexander Solonik.
  33. BBC News, So Who are the Russian Mafia?, BBC Online Network, April 1, 1998.
  34. CNN:Russian organized crime implicated in skating scandal.

Further reading

  • Yvonne Bornstein and Mark Ribowsky, Eleven Days of Hell: My True Story of Kidnapping, Terror, Torture and Historic FBI & KGB Rescue. AuthorHouse, 2004. ISBN 1-4184-9302-3.
  • Douglass, Joseph D. Red Cocaine: The Drugging of America. Atlanta, Ga: Clarion House, 1990. ISBN 096266460X, ISBN 1899798048. Chronicles Soviet development of South American drug cartels.
  • James O. Finckenauer & Elin J. Waring, Russian Mafia in America: Immigration, Culture and Crime, Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1998, ISBN 1-55553-374-4.
  • Robert I. Friedman, Red Mafiya: How the Russian Mob Has Invaded America, Penguin Group, 2002, ISBN 0-425-18687-3.
  • Mark Galeotti (ed.), Russian and Post-Soviet Organized Crime, Ashgate/Dartmouth, 2002, ISBN 0-7546-2176-6.
  • Glenny, Misha (2008), McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld; New Yorkmarker: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Johanna Granville, “Dermokratizatsiya and Prikhvatizatsiya: the Russian Kleptocracy and Rise of Organized Crime,” in Demokratizatsiya, vol. 11, no. 3 (summer 2003): 449-457.
  • Serio, Joe D. Investigating The Russian Mafia. Carolina Academic Press, Durham, 2008, ISBN 978-1-59460-225-2.
  • Claire Sterling, Thieves' World: The Threat of the New Global Network of Organized Crime, Simon & Schuster, 1994, ISBN 0671749978.
  • Teresa Staffer, "Russian mafia leaves Bay Area Jews alone, officials say", j., March 22, 1996.
  • Federico Varese, The Russian Mafia: Private Protection in a New Market Economy, Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 019829736X.
  • Vadim Volkov, Violent Entrepreneurs. The Use of Force in the Making of Russian Capitalism, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002

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