Russians have an oddly reverential attitude about their gangsters. For a small fee, tour guides will lead you through Moscow’s Vagankovskoye cemetery, where mafiosi of means are buried – some under life-sized statues or headstones etched with a likeness of the deceased standing next to his BMW. You can tune into Radio Shanson, named after a style of folk music devoted to ballads about prison life, which is currently Moscow’s second most popular station. Or notice the traditional thief’s gesture known as the raspaltsovka, extending the index and little finger, now as ubiquitous as gold chains and Rolexes in Moscow’s nightclubs.
But nothing demonstrates the veneration of all things gangster, like the untimely demise of a vor v zakone, or Russian mafia boss.
In what has become almost a ritual, a high level razborka, or execution, will invariably lead the evening news. Announcers dwell lovingly on the details of the murder weapon, the getaway route, the model of Mercedes or Maybach that the victim was driving. Then comes the grainy CCTV footage or mobile phone photos of the deceased slumped over his steering wheel or prone outside the entrance to a lap-dancing club.
Within 24 hours, television stations will have produced computer simulations of the attack, complete with CGI-style graphics. Ballistics experts will be discussing the properties of the weapons used and any cool gadgets involved in the operation. Footage will follow of balaclava-clad police commandoes kicking in doors and cuffing men with abnormally thick necks and lots of tattoos and scars; mugshots of the enemies of the victim, their mob aliases (“Tomato”, “Pussycat”, “Little Japanese”) and their possible motives.
The next set-piece is the funeral, where the men with abnormally thick necks and tattoos and scars peering out from under black designer suits, congregate with absurdly large wreaths of flowers to bid farewell to the deceased.
One of the purveyors of such death porn is Maxim Gladki. A freelance television journalist, Gladki is one of an army of reporters who specialise in the mafia, playing to their audience’s love of all things gangster and delivering exactly what is craved – the drama, gore, technological geekery, secret service acronyms and luxury branding, which accompany the typical Russian mafia hit.
Mafia killings are fewer in number compared with the “wild west” days of the 1990s, but they are qualitatively different. Twenty years ago, killings were carried out mainly with knives, as firearms were prohibited in the USSR. Fifteen years ago, the mafia got around to using guns, but, according to Gladki, the “Rambo mentality” and “low level of professional ability” meant a lot of collateral carnage. These days, however, the level of professionalism is chilling. Snipers make head shots at hundreds of metres, or evade 10 security cameras on their escape, leaving behind an untraceable weapon. It does not take a genius to understand that new people have arrived on the scene. “Basically, the mafia has been taken over by the state,” says Gladki.
The middle-aged Gladki’s career has traced the rise of Russia’s first mafiosi, the so called vory v zakone or “thieves in law”, from a quasi monastic order of gang leaders that ran life in the gulags under the USSR, through the wild west days of the capitalist 1990s, to the decade of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. “Now all the vory have gone to work for the FSB [the Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB], and life has got duller,” conceded Gladki, over lunch at a coffee house around the corner from my office. Top ranking “thieves in law” now own legitimate businesses, drive armoured Maybachs, hang out with judges, politicians, and have policemen on their payrolls. But while Russia’s vory have started to go legit, the opposite has happened to Russia’s authorities. Indeed, the basic functions of organised crime – protection rackets, narcotics, extortion and prostitution, have increasingly been assumed by the Russian state.
In a WikiLeaks cable, a Spanish judge – an expert on the Russian mafia, who has studied the mob for 11 years – told US diplomats that he considered Russia a “mafia state”, where “one cannot differentiate between the activities of the government and OC [organised crime] groups”.
In my own experience researching crime in Russia, one often came across hybrid organisations made up of organised crime and law enforcement, though it was never quite clear who was telling whom what to do.
Take the assassination of opposition journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, for example; those arrested included a professional mafia hitman, an active duty FSB colonel and members of a police special surveillance unit, who are all currently awaiting a second trial. Another high-profile crime was the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in prison in 2009, whose fate was sealed after he accused police investigators of tax fraud amounting to $230m (£147m). All those involved are still free.
Then there was this year’s scandal known as the “Moscow gambling affair” in the Russian press, in which the owner of an illegal gambling casino testified that he paid local prosecutors and police as much as 80 per cent of his profits, estimated by a court at Rbs770m (£15.6m), for a krysha, the Russian mafia’s notorious protection “roof”.
The gambling affair demonstrated just how cosy law enforcement and criminal gangs have become in Russia. Indeed, according to an interview with Ivan Nazarov, the casino operator, in Kommersant newspaper, after he had paid the prosecutor’s office no organised crime groups bothered him for protection money.
The gangster nostalgia that the public feels for the good old days of the vory may be a longing for a simpler time, when bandits took your wallet occasionally, but did not have a chair on top of the Lenin mausoleum watching the Victory Day parade.
“All the old mafia groups are gone,” says Gennady Gudkov, deputy chairman of the security committee in the state Duma. “Today it’s the white-collar bureaucrats who sit on top of everything.”
The real mafia, if one can call it that, is still a hidden presence lurking at the bottom of Russian society. To find it, I needed Gladki, the man many of Russia’s top mobsters trust to tell their stories.
His authority on the subject of the mob is unimpeachable. Just a week before I met with him, he was sitting across the table from Andrei Burlakov, a businessman involved in a messy dispute over the sale of a stake in Russia’s fifth-largest bank, the Bank of Moscow, and his wife.
As the trio enjoyed their lunch, an assassin calmly walked up and shot Burlakov in the head; the bullet fragments seriously injuring his wife. Burlakov died hours later; the hitman simply melted into the lunchtime crowds.
Most journalists whose lunch interview had been so brutally curtailed would have been given time off and counselling for post-traumatic stress. But in Russia, the treatment is simply a couple of shots of vodka and straight back to work.
Gladki has a few words of advice about the Russian mafia. “These are completely different people. I mean it. Be careful, they are ‘other’” he said, using the Russia word “Iniye” which one might use to describe vampires or extra terrestrials. “One day they’ll tell you they are going to strangle you. The next day you’ll see them and it’s like you’re one of the family.”
Meeting him I raise the previous week’s “incident” somewhat gingerly, but Gladki, a journalist through and through, will have none of such sensitive posing. He knows what I am after, and his exuberance is infectious. While only a week has passed since his lunch partner fell face first into his cappuccino with a bullet in his skull, Gladki describes the shooting with an irrepressible but slightly practised air, the way a violin collector might introduce you to a new Stradivarius.
It turns out, for example, that mob killings involve an entire symbolic hierarchy. Alongside the straightforward objective of killing or maiming, assassinations are also freighted with meaning.
“In assassinations, there are gradations of respect,” said Gladki. “The lowest is strangling. If you strangle someone, it is a sign of severe disrespect.” Using a pistol, he said, is “50/50” – kind of an OK, but not brilliant way to be killed. “And then there is the Kalashnikov. To be shot by a Kalashnikov assault rifle is the ultimate form of respect. It is a very good death for a Russian.”
Based on the above analysis, Gladki has surmised that someone must have had a lot of respect for a man named Aslan Usoyan, nicknamed “Grandpa Hasan”, who was reckoned to be the highest ranking mafia boss in Russia. On September 16 2010, an assassin shot him in the stomach with a Kalashnikov. The hit was clearly an elaborate job. It had been planned for months: an apartment had been rented across the street from Usoyan’s son’s flat three months prior to the shooting; the sniper left his untraceable weapon in the third-floor room and managed to evade up to 10 security cameras in his getaway. The location of the shooting, in one of the most tightly protected neighbourhoods in Moscow, a mere 800m from the Kremlin’s walls, indicated the involvement of Russia’s special services, according to Gladki.
When I try to get to the bottom of the attempted murder, however, I quickly get lost in a sea of Georgian surnames and mafia klichki or aliases. No one has the definitive version of who ordered the hit, and no one has yet been arrested.
It was mainly blamed on Tariel Oniani, a Georgian rival with whom Usoyan had quarrelled over interests in Olympic building projects in Sochi, according to police investigators. True, Oniani was in prison at the time, having been arrested in 2009 for kidnapping, but in Russia that is generally not seen as an obstacle to carrying on the running of a criminal empire.
However, one former police detective, who took part in his arrest in 2009, thinks it may have been an attempt by Usoyan’s security services protectors to extort more protection money from him. In the end, Usoyan was only injured, and reportedly has gone to ground somewhere in Russia’s south.
Aslan Usoyan is one of the mafia’s old guard. An ethnic Kurd from Georgia who belongs to the Yezid faith, he has a ruddy complexion, jet black hair and a portly, garrulous demeanour, which befits the “Grandpa Hasan” nickname. He was first inducted into the ranks of the vory v zakone, according to a police dossier seen by the FT, after going to prison in 1984 for trafficking in fake gold coins.
During Soviet times, the vory were like a religious sect. The top echelons – so it is said – were not allowed to marry or have families, could not join the army, work for state institutions, own property or have any of the trappings of the wealth. Elaborate tattoos still spiral tapestry-like along their arms and torsos, recording their crimes and convictions, and signet rings denote rank.
“The vory were supposed to live like Franciscan monks,” said Andrei Konstantinov, an expert on the Russia mafia and author of what is probably the most popular Russian language history of the subject, Bandit Petersburg. “They practically had to take a vow of poverty, even though they stole colossal amounts of money,” he says. Thieves were required by their code to put all their earnings into a common pool, to be used for the benefit of their comrades in prison.
The problem with such a puritanical approach to being a gangster, though, is that it defeats the purpose if you do not get to keep what you steal. So it is unsurprising that the thieves’ code has been subjected to some modifications since the arrival of capitalism in Russia two decades ago.
Gangsters now flash their wealth, have wives and families and are not afraid to be seen in the company of police, who today are more than likely contract employees. Amid the decadence in Russian society brought about by rapid oil wealth and hyper-consumption, it seems even the criminals have begun to lose their moral bearings. Indeed, it is now even possible to buy the status of vor v zakone, which used to be earned with stints in prison camps. Those who have come by their titles dishonestly, however, (ie not by engaging in a life of crime) are referred to as apelsini or “oranges”.
Usoyan is one man who did not buy his title. Released in 1991, just in time for the arrival of capitalism in Russia, Usoyan took part in the explosion of wealth and corruption that fuelled the ascent of organised crime gangs across Russia to positions of unrivalled influence. Business could only be done if you paid your protection money, and in some cases gang-related murders were running at 10-20 a day. “It was like a conflict zone, like Iraq, on bad days here,” said Konstantinov. In 1996, Usoyan was arrested and charged with murdering a rival kingpin known as “Amiran”, but acquitted. Then in 1998, he survived an assassination attempt.
The arrival of ex-KGB colonel Vladimir Putin as president in 2000, however, brought changes. Things quietened down; some of the former gang leaders are now dead or in prison (abroad as a rule, as they seldom stay behind bars very long in Russia). Others have taken part in the “great legalisation” as Konstantinov puts it, becoming legitimate businessmen. Still others remain mobsters, but it is clear that they have been given a degree of protection by the state, “in exchange for the occasional favour” according to Gladki.
Mark Galeotti, a Russian mafia specialist at New York University, says he is not a fan of the “Mafia state” hypothesis, in which organised crime is essentially inseparable from the Kremlin. However, he says it is undeniable that on occasion, one side will find a use for the other: “If we look at the extent to which organised crime does the bidding of the state the answer is that it happens in specific cases,” he said “The state can often set the rules because the state is clearly the biggest game in town.”
Usoyan became the Russian mafia’s most powerful vor in 2006, when his partner, Zakhar Kalashov, a fellow Yezidi Kurd from Tbilisi and at the time reckoned to be the ranking vor in Russia, was arrested in the United Arab Emirates. Kalashov was extradited to Spain to face money laundering charges, of which he was ultimately convicted in 2010 and sentenced to nine years in prison.
On three occasions in 2009-2010, US diplomats interviewed a Spanish prosecutor, who put Kalashov behind bars. According to the 2010 cable released by WikiLeaks, the prosecutor “considers Belarus, Chechnya and Russia to be virtual ‘mafia states’ and said that Ukraine is going to be one”. The cable also states: “He summarised his views by asserting that the GOR’s [government of Russia] strategy is to use OC groups to do whatever the GOR cannot acceptably do as a government.” Kalashov and Usoyan are apparently still close. Spanish police intercepted Kalashov’s telephone conversations between June and November 2006, which showed that Usoyan gave instructions to Kalashov’s people to protect him and extract him from prison, according to a Spanish official. Further phone tapping in 2008 overheard two mafiosi talking to each other about Kalashov’s problems in Russia, but saying Usoyan was still supporting him.
Aslan Usoyan, however, insists he is a simple businessman. In 2006, Gladki actually managed to interview him for Russia’s Channel One state TV channel. The meeting was filmed secretly, after Kalashov’s arrest. Gladki, wearing a wire and being filmed from a long-range hidden camera, accosted the elderly Georgian at Vnukovo airport in Moscow. “It is said that Kalashov was the godfather, and you are second in command after him?” Gladki challenged.
Usoyan seemed surprised, but, recovering, answered: “Not true. It was to someone’s advantage to blacken his name and take his property in Russia … Shakro [Kalashov] built himself a palace in Tbilisi. One has to live more modestly.”
“You don’t want to be the godfather?”
“I am a pensioner, I live on a pension. I live modestly, I don’t touch anyone, I just mind my own business.”
Even the police say they suspect Usoyan may have high-level protectors. A former investigator for UBOP, a recently disbanded anti-organised crime division of the interior ministry, says “We are 100 per cent convinced that behind Grandpa Hasan stands the FSB.”
He recalls an investigation in 2009 where he entered Usoyan’s name and known aliases into Rozysk-Magistral, a police database tracking movement of specific individuals across Russia. He would have been notified if Usoyan bought any ticket to travel under any of his assumed names. “After a few weeks of not getting any reports, we suddenly found that he had somehow got into Kazakhstan. Then North Ossetia. But there was no paper. None of this was showing up on our grid.”
The investigator, who asked that his name not be used, pursued this up the chain of command but “received discouraging signals”. He believes someone was protecting Usoyan, keeping his name out of the databases and giving him freedom of movement. “That could only have been the FSB,” he says.
Grandpa Hasan remains an elusive mystery. Researching this article, I have tried to find him or a representative to talk to. Every time, they don’t show, or call with an excuse, or switch their phone off, sometimes for good. After all of my efforts, my notebook is still full of rumours and contradictions. The story of Grandpa Hasan and the mafia seems to personify the mystery of today’s Russia.
Charles Clover is the FT’s Moscow bureau chief. Additional reporting by Victor Mallet. To comment on this article, please email email@example.com