Cover image for Red Mafiya : how the Russian mob has invaded America
Title:
Red Mafiya : how the Russian mob has invaded America
Author:
Friedman, Robert I., 1950-
Personal Author:
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Boston : Little, Brown, [2000]

©2000
Physical Description:
xxi, 296 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780316294744
Format :
Book

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Central Library HV6453.R8 F75 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
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Summary

Summary

From an award-winning investigative journalist comes an astonishing expose of Russian organized crime, its growing power in the United States, and its terrifying implications for the rest of the world. 16-page photo insert.


Reviews 2

Booklist Review

In Russia, the term "organized crime" may be something of an oxymoron because, according to Jane's Intelligence Review, there are at least 6,500 criminal gangs at work in the country. Filling the vacuum created by the collapse of Communism, Russian gangsters may control as much as half of the Russian economy, and as many as 80 percent of Russian businesses may be forced to pay protection money. Friedman has reported on the mafiya for such popular publications as Vanity Fair and Details. Now he traces its growing influence in the U.S. He is also the author of The False Prophet (1990), a highly critical biography of Jewish Defense League founder Rabbi Meir Kahane, and Zealots for Zion (1992), a controversial portrait of Israel's West Bank settlers. Garnering not only interviews with high-ranking crime figures but also several death threats, Friedman now provides startling evidence of the extent to which the mafiya has infiltrated the U.S. and chilling details of its ruthless tactics. --David Rouse


Publisher's Weekly Review

This disturbing, sharply rendered account tells how the post-Communist Russian Mafiya has infiltrated American life with tactical intelligence and a rare level of viciousness. Drawing from interviews with top Russian mobsters and police, journalist Friedman (Zealots for Zion: Inside Israel's West Bank Settlement Movement) trenchantly explores the brutal corruption of the U.S.S.R. and the anarchic greed that has flourished since its collapse, incubating a "criminal colossus that has surpassed the Colombian cartels, the Japanese Yakuzas, the Chinese triads and the Italian Mafia in wealth and weaponry." Friedman, whose reporting on this subject has appeared in Vanity Fair, the Village Voice and other publications, writes of one wise guy responsible for 100 hits and of "Tarzan"Dthe swaggering Miami mobster busted while attempting to tender a Russian submarine to Colombian drug lords. Friedman documents how the mobsters have imported their brand of terror tacticsDshakedowns, kidnappings, bombings and public assassinationDfrom Moscow to Russian communities in Denver, Brooklyn's Brighton Beach and elsewhere, and examines what he casts as the largely inadequate, uninformed responses by law enforcement. Perhaps most disturbing, he suggests, is this: following profitable 1980s-era gasoline bootlegging schemes, Mafiya criminals shrewdly expanded into numerous quasi-legal pursuitsDestablishing luxurious Russian-themed nightclubs, corrupting Russian migr ice hockey players and making inroads in Israel through their own Jewish ethnicity. Friedman isn't always in control of the bewildering array of players and narrative threads that make up his complicated tale. But there's much to praise in this frightening, urgent reportorial projectDa project that has resulted in death threats against Friedman, as he relates in his hair-raising introduction. Photo insert not seen by PW. BOMC alternate. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter One The Hit Man On a spring day when warm sunshine flooded the narrow, potholed streets, I took a taxi to Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), an imposing collection of tomblike cinder block towers in lower Manhattan, to interview Monya Elson -- one of the most dangerous Russian mobsters the feds ever netted. I passed through several layers of security before I was shepherded by an armed guard up an elevator and deposited in a small, antiseptic cubicle with booming acoustics where lawyers meet their clients. I had a tape recorder and four hours of Memorex. At least half a dozen armed guards stood outside the door, which was closed but had an observation window. Elson, an edgy man with a dark mien, was brought into the room, his hands and feet chained. He is considered a maximum-security risk, and for good reason: a natural-born extortionist and killing machine, Elson is perhaps the most prolific hit man in Russian mob history, making Sammy "the Bull" Gravano, with nineteen acknowledged hits, a mere piker. Elson boasts one hundred confirmed kills, a figure the authorities don't dispute. With his dour-faced wife, Marina, Elson would allegedly go out on murderous rampages, rumbling around Brooklyn in the back of a van. After flinging open its doors, they would gleefully execute their shake-down victims, à la Bonnie and Clyde. "It was a sex thing," claims a Genovese goodfella who worked closely with Elson. "They got off on the withering bodies." Elson emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1978, claiming Jewish refugee status, and settled in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. His mission: to become the most legendary gangster of all time. "Nobody remembers the first man who walked on the moon," Elson explains. "Everybody remembers Al Capone." Elson wore a drab brown prison uniform; his close-cropped hair, formerly thick and black, had thinned and turned salt-and-pepper like his mustache. His once handsomely roguish face was puffy and pale. Cyrillic letters were tattooed onto each finger, identifying him as a made man in the Russian mob. When the last prison guard left the room, Elson, his hands unshackled, scooped me up in a bone-jarring Russian bear hug, kissing me on both cheeks. He was enormously strong. Elson granted me an interview, in part, because my maternal grandfather was from Kishinev, Elson's home-town. "Oh, we have the same blood!" he said. "But it went in a different direction. I come from a different culture. I am a criminal. And for you this is bad: you were raised to believe in the law. What is good for you is not good for me. I am proud of what I am." Elson suddenly started pulling off his shirt and pants. "Look here! Look here!" he shouted excitedly, showing off his battle trophies. Pointing to a crater from a dumdum bullet near his heart, he boasted, "It's still inside. And look at this: I was shot all over. It wasn't a joke. The pain in my arm from a shooting goes through me like electricity on wet and humid days. It really hurts." Elson was most proud of a large tattoo that covered his right shoulder. It depicted an anguished-looking skeleton immersed in a vat of acid, desperately reaching up to grasp two angels hovering above. "In this world, a young man seeks a name," said Elson, laying out his bleak criminal philosophy. "When he has found a name, he seeks money. When he has found money, he seeks power. But when he has power, he doesn't wish to lose it." Elson has spent his career clawing over the corpses of his enemies, trying to reach the top rung of Russian organized crime -- a metaphorical place he calls the "warm spot." MCC hadn't dampened Elson's egomania. He wanted to know what every wiseguy I interviewed had to say about him. "You spoke to somebody about me?" Elson asked, playing with an empty plastic ashtray. "Of course." "Don't say to whom. But what did they say? Tell me description. Don't tell me who because I'll lose my patience." "They say you're a hit man, professional, one of the best," I replied. "Brave. Tough." "Also cruel." "Unforgiving," Elson added. "But fair or not? I never touched an innocent person. Or they said that I did? People say I don't have feelings, that I don't give a fuck. It's not true. It's not true. First of all, if you don't have feelings you'd have to be a Hitler, or you'd have to be a Stalin. But when you lead the kind of criminal life where somebody wants to kill you, that somebody wants to take your warm spot. You cannot let them. I don't kill people for fun. That's not true . . ." Elson suddenly became sullen, irritable; his mouth twisted into a tight sneer. "This place is like a mental institution," he moaned with disgust. Prison was eating into his soul, although he denied that he was having a hard time dealing with it. "I've been fighting since I was eleven years old. I'm a fighter. I'm not a punk." Elson was born to a Jewish family two years before Stalin's death, on May 23, 1951. Kishinev, the five-centuries-old city on the banks of the river Dnestr, was a town without pity for Jews. A pogrom on April 3, 1903, incited by the czar's minister of the interior Vyacheslav von Plehve, killed more than fifty Jewish residents; scores of Jewish women were raped by pillaging Cossack horsemen. The pogrom was memorialized in an epic poem by Bialik, in which he lamented the plight of the Diaspora Jew as "the senseless living and the senseless dying" in a world that would always remain hostile to them. Bialik underscored the Jewish people's deep yearnings for an independent homeland -- or a ticket to safety in the West. From the time that he was a boy, Elson instinctively recognized that there was only one way out of the Jewish ghetto: to excel at crime. He grew up in a rough neighbor-hood, which grew even rougher when, the year before he died, Stalin released thousands of inmates from the Gulag into the district. These hooligans became Elson's heroes. "We had guys who were like the kings of the neighborhood. Tough guys. They were fighters. They weren't afraid of the police. And in every conversation they spoke about jail. How to survive the Gulag. How to be independent of the law Russia imposed on you. When you grow up and you hear only bad things about the government, and the words were coming from cruel people who had passed through the harshest system in the world -- the Gulag, the Stalin regime, and World War II -- this environment, of course, has some influence on you. Because every kid, as I understand it, in any country, wants to be tough, wants to be famous, wants to be strong somehow." The songs Elson relished as a youth were not communist odes to the mother-land, but rather, criminal folk songs with lyrics like: "This street gave me the nickname thief and gradually put me behind bars." Given the gross inequities of communism, where corruption wasn't just widespread but the business of the state, it was almost inevitable that the Soviet Union would be plagued by an almost institutionalized culture of thievery. As Pulitzer Prize winner David Remnick, a former Washington Post correspondent in Moscow, has portrayed the situation, "It was as if the entire Soviet Union were ruled by a gigantic Mob family known as the C.P.S.U. [Communist Party of the Soviet Union]." Beneath the thin veneer of official communism lay a vast underground economy of off-the-book factories, food co-ops, and construction companies that were the basis of the burgeoning black market in everything from medicines to foodstuffs. Store and restaurant managers, directors of state enterprises, officials of local, regional, and even national party institutions, and operators of collective and state farms all trafficked in illegal business. Corruption was so pervasive in the Black Sea port of Odessa, historically a major seat of organized crime in Russia, that the first secretary of the city's party committee was sentenced to death in the early 1970s for black-marketeering. By the end of the Brezhnev period, the underground sector of the economy accounted for as much as 50 percent of the personal income of Soviet workers. But it was the apparatchiks and black marketeers who profited the most, living like feudal lords in ornate hilltop palaces and summer villas, relaxing in private sanatoriums, shopping in special stores filled with Japanese consumer goods, and traveling abroad -- the most coveted privilege in the restrictive Soviet Union. But the black marketeers weren't only ambitious Russians with an entrepreneurial bent; they often included nationally renowned members of the intelligentsia, sports stars, chess champions, and the cream of the art and entertainment worlds. These individuals would journey overseas under the patronage of a friendly politician, bringing back choice wares like Citroën cars, motor-boats, and designer fashions for resale. Many became multimillionaires. Unsurprisingly, the State, while officially denying the existence of crime, tolerated the criminal underworld, the thugs and extortionists who played a prime role in feeding the country's repressed appetite for consumer goods. "Organized crime in the Soviet Union bears the stamp of the Soviet political system," wrote Konstantin Simis, a lawyer who had worked in the Soviet Ministry of Justice, in his exposé, USSR: The Corrupt Society. "It was characteristic of the system that the ruling district elite acted in the name of the Party as racketeers and extortionists, and that the criminal underworld per se paid through the nose to the district apparat for stolen goods and services." Left out of this lucrative equation were most average Russians. Although the majority also learned to deal in illegal black market contraband to one degree or another -- there was simply no other way to survive -- the greedy nomenklatura, the elite membership of the Soviet governing system, and criminal demimonde hoarded the greater share of the nation's already scarce resources for themselves. Victims of the raw fear that was a legacy of the terrors of the Stalin regime as well as of communism's own ongoing murderous abuses, most of the "proletariat" literally despised the State. "Everyone in my neighborhood was bitter toward Lenin, Stalin, and later Khrushchev," Elson remembered. In towns like Kishinev, this tremendous cynicism and distrust of authority went beyond simply an acceptance of criminality. Most people not only did business with mobsters on a daily basis, but held powerful criminals -- as opposed to the loathed apparatchiks -- in the highest regard. These criminals often enjoyed a reputation among the populace for their Robin Hood?like honesty; they even meted out justice in local tribunals called People's Courts, where common folk, eschewing State authorities, flocked to solve their personal disputes. The People's Courts, which existed in towns and communities throughout the country, were largely administered by a special breed of colorful lawbreaker called vor v zakonye -- or "thieves-in-law" -- a fraternal order of elite criminals that dates back to the time of the czars. They first arose during the reign of Peter the Great (1682?1725), incubated in the vast archipelago of Russia's prison camps. There, hard-core felons banded together in tight networks that soon spread throughout the Gulags. Members were sworn to abide by a rigid code of behavior that included never working in a legitimate job, not paying taxes, refusing to fight in the army, and never, for any reason, c ooperating with the police or State, unless it was to trick them. A giant eagle with razor-sharp talons emblazoned on their chests announced their status as vor s; tattoos on their kneecaps meant they would not bow to anyone. They even developed a secret language that proved to be virtually indecipherable to authorities, and set up a communal criminal fund, or obshchak, to bribe officials, finance business ventures, and help inmates and their families. The vor brotherhood grew in strength to the point that they began to play an unusual role in the nation's history. They taught Lenin's gangs to rob banks to fund the communist revolution. Later, enemies of the new State used them to sow dissension, fear, and chaos. During the Second World War, Stalin devised a plot to annihilate the thriving vor subculture by recruiting them to defend the motherland. Those who fought with the Red Army, defying the age-old prohibition of helping the State, were rewarded by being arrested after the war and thrown into the same prison camps with the vors who had refused to join the epic conflict. The "collaborators" were branded suki, or bitches. At night, when the Arctic concentration camps grew miserably cold, knives were unsheathed, and the two sides hacked each other to pieces; barracks were bombed and set on fire. The "Vor Wars," or "Bitches' Wars," lasted from 1945 to 1953. When they were over, only the vors who refused to battle the Nazis had survived. By then, they wielded ultimate authority in prison, even over wardens, importing liquor, narcotics, and women. They slept near open windows, away from the communal toilet, where, according to their beliefs, only homosexuals and weaklings were fit to reside. Vors became made men in Soviet prisons only after they were recommended by at least two other vor s. Even today, this nearly mythic criminal cult is one of the most dynamic forces in the Russian underworld. Elson thrived among men like these. "I loved Kishinev," Elson fondly recalls. "The big guys and the tough guys used to teach me to steal from childhood. They let me go with them on burglaries. I was so skinny and small, they used to send me through the windows, and I used to open the door for them. We used to compare ourselves to the wolves of the forest, because the wolves eat only the weak animals." By the age of nine, Elson was a full-fledged member of a fierce street gang. "We used to go from neighborhood to neighborhood to fight. The only reason we did it was to show we were strong and weren't afraid. When I was eleven, someone pulled a stiletto on me. I couldn't refuse to fight, because if I refused, I would be a hated person." His opponent made a swift, jutting move, slicing his blade through Elson's chin and into his tongue. "It was painful and I wanted to cry, but the gang leader who ordered me to fight was looking at me. I didn't cry." Elson's parents had little patience for their son's criminal activities. "Oh, my parents beat the shit out of me," he said. Elson's father, Abraham, was a master tailor who fled Poland on the heels of the Nazi invasion. The Russians suspected that he was a German spy and exiled him to Siberia for the duration of the war. Elson's mother had been previously married, but her first husband died in the war, and their two children perished of starvation. "My mother and father used to tell me: ?Monya, don't go with those bad guys, because this reflects on you. You will have a bad reputation. ' But in school, I wasn't very good. I liked to fight. I liked to steal. The older guys would extort money from me, then I'd extort money from the younger kids. "But even as a child, I thought, ?If I was born and raised in a different area, would I be the same, or different?' But later, I understood that being a criminal was my destiny. I don't know. I don't believe in God." Inevitably Elson began to have serious run-ins with Soviet law -- a crucial step in becoming a full-fledged member of the underworld. If you didn't break during a police beating, you were considered a stand-up guy. If you cracked, and became a snitch, you'd be labeled a musor, a Russian word that literally meant "garbage," but that has taken on the pejorative meaning of either "cop" or "rat," the worst epithet in the Russian criminal lexicon. "Before the detectives interrogated you, they'd try to beat a confession out of you," Elson said. "They put dirt in special socks and beat your kidneys. Afterward, you urinate blood." Elson insists that he never squealed. Before long, Elson graduated to one of the highest callings in the Eastern bloc's criminal pecking order -- a pick-pocket. Skilled pickpockets received immense respect from other criminals, and were often accorded leadership status in their gangs. Polish Jewish thieves who came to Russia during World War II were considered the best pick-pockets, Elson says. They could slip a wallet out of a jacket, snatch the rubles, and return it in a split second, the victim remaining unaware. Bent on proving his mettle, Elson moved to Moscow and joined a gang that specialized in extortion. "I don't want to brag, but I was great at this," Elson recounted. "I did it thousands of times." If the victim balked, "I could talk nice, or put a gun to his ear." Monya's motto: "Don't show pity or regret when you [kill someone]. Don't even think about it." Although by the time he was twenty-six, Elson was married, had two young daughters, and was flourishing in his gang life, political events conspired to create an even greater opportunity for him. These were the early years of détente, and the American Jewish establishment and their congressional allies, who had long been trying to bring Soviet Jews westward, saw a way to leverage their cause. Leonid Brezhnev saw détente as a way to shore up an ailing economy. In September 1972, in a speech before the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, Washington State Democratic Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson proposed linking U.S. trade benefits to emigration rights in the Soviet Union. He later co-sponsored the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which withheld most-favored-nation status from socialist countries that restricted Jewish emigration. The effort, which was bitterly opposed by Nixon and Kissinger as a threat to détente, was one of the factors that pressured Russia to allow tens of thousands of Jews to leave the country. In the two-year period between 1972 and 1973 alone, more than 66,000 Russian Jews emigrated, compared to just 2,808 in 1969. But with what must have been considerable amusement, the Soviets made certain that this vast exodus was not made up solely of innocent, persecuted Jews. Much as Fidel Castro would do several years later during the Mariél boatlift, the KGB took this opportunity to empty its jails of thousands of hard-core criminals, dumping vast numbers of undesirables like Monya Elson on an unsuspecting America, as well as on Israel and other Western nations. Persecution certainly played no role in Elson's application for Jewish refugee status. He was typical of his era -- a deracinated Soviet Jew with a touch of self-loathing. "They called me a ?fucking kike' everywhere," said Elson, and "if someone called me a Zhid, I fought back." But otherwise, "I was thinking, What kind of Jew am I? I don't know any Jewish holidays -- I never heard of them. But I sang Russian songs. I ate Russian food. I spoke Russian language. I sucked inside Russian culture." The only thing he liked about being Jewish per se, he admits, was that some of the Soviet Union's top crooks were also Jews. However, if stealing from the workers in the workers' paradise was pure pleasure, Elson reasoned, then stealing from the workers in the vastly richer capitalist paradise would be nirvana. Fortunately, his Soviet passport was stamped "Jew," and in 1977 he obtained a precious exit permit, and moved his family to a transit camp outside Vienna, run by the Jewish Agency. Elson was given an Israeli visa; it was the only way the Soviets would let a Jew leave the U.S.S.R. But like many Jewish refugees, he wanted to go to the United States instead, and well-funded American Jewish organizations who supported the concept of free immigration helped large numbers of them to gain entry to America, infuriating Israel's Zionist establishment, which believed that Israel should be the destination for all the Jewish people. Soon, he was moved from Vienna to a transit camp near Rome operated by the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society for émigrés headed to Western nations. It was in these camps, where criminals from the far reaches of the Soviet empire converged, languishing for up to months at a time, that the global menace of Russian organized crime was fomented. They proved to be both excellent recruiting stations and networking centers, where gangsters on their way to Brighton Beach met gangsters bound for Antwerp, Brussels, or London. Once the mobsters reached their destinations, they could phone up their new friends for criminal advice, intelligence, and additional contacts. Scattered around the world, Russian criminals passed on what they "learned about the local law enforcement system, the monetary system, how the banks work," said a frustrated Drug Enforcement Agency official in New York. "And they just started beating the hell out of us. The Italians will come to New York, and that's it. The most they can do is phone somebody back in Italy. But they don't know anybody in London or Belgium." "It's the Red Octopus," said Louis Cardenelli, a DEA supervisor in Manhattan. "We helped foster this global organized crime monster." Elson waited in the Rome transit camp for three months. During his idle hours, he pickpocketed unwary Italians, using the plunder to buy designer blue jeans for his wife and daughters. Meanwhile, hoodlum comrades from Moscow who had already visited the United States paid calls on Elson to regale him with the criminal splendors of Brighton Beach. "When I asked Elson why he came to America," one of his defense lawyers in Brooklyn bluntly acknowledged, "he said, ?To shake people down.' " When he arrived in New York in 1978 on a flight paid for by the U.S. government, Elson was like a nine-year-old kid who had won a lifetime pass to Disneyland. "I was free!" he said. "I could rob! I could steal! I could do whatever I wanted!" In the 1970s, more than forty thousand Russian Jews settled in Brighton Beach, the formerly stolid working-class Jewish neighborhood that inspired Neil Simon's gentle play Brighton Beach Memoirs. It was under the shadow of the elevated subway tracks on Brighton Beach Avenue, bustling with Russian meat markets, vegetable pushcarts, and bakeries, that the Russian gangsters resumed their careers as professional killers, thieves, and scoundrels. By the time of Elson's arrival, Brighton Beach had already become the seat of the dreaded Organizatsiy a, the Russian Jewish mob. Elson quickly discovered that Brighton Beach was two communities. Affluent Russians resided in the well-kept Art Deco apartment buildings that lined the Atlantic Ocean, while on the many side streets, littered with crack dens and decaying clapboard homes, poor Russian families lived sometimes ten to a squalid room. The neighborhood had decayed so badly that even the local McDonald's had shut down. Bordered on one side by the ocean and on another by an enormous middle-class housing project referred to by the émigrés as the "Great Wall of China," the Russians built a closed world, inhospitable to outsiders, that was self-consciously modeled on the city many once called home -- Odessa -- a tawdry Black Sea port that was once considered the Marseilles of the Soviet Union. Beefy men in fur caps walked down the boardwalk on frigid winter mornings, ice caught in their beards and hair, stopping at vendors to buy pirogi, pastry shells filled with spicy pork, topped with a dollop of sour cream. Movie houses showed first-run Russian-language films; cafés crackled with the voices of gruff conversations in Russian and Ukrainian. The streets also crackled with gunfire. "Little Odessa" was the new Klondike, a town full of dangerous desperadoes, where the powerful crooks preyed upon the small. During this anarchic epoch of Russian organized crime in America, a "big man" gathered around him other strong men to form a gang. These groups were amoebalike; there was little loyalty, and entrepreneurial wiseguys constantly shifted allegiances in search of a score, vying with one another over Medicare and Medicaid scams, counterfeiting schemes, and drug deals. A professional hit cost as little as $2,000, and it was often cheaper to hire a hit man than it was to pay off a loan. The gangsters devoted most of their energy to preying on the community they helped to create. Nearly every Russian in Brighton Beach had a family member who was either connected to the mob or paying off an extortionist. Gang leaders would headquarter their operations in one of the multitude of Russian restaurants and cabarets. The most notorious one, on Brighton Beach Avenue in the heart of Brooklyn's émigré community, was named, appropriately enough, the Odessa. It was owned by Marat Balagula, a bookish-looking hood, who bought it in 1980 and quickly turned it into mob central. He replaced the flaking paint and frayed industrial carpeting with chrome and parquet, and hired a stunning African-American singer fluent in Russian. Downstairs, he opened a seafood cafeteria. The Odessa attracted huge crowds of locals, who gorged themselves on inexpensive, family-style meals that included gluttonous portions of chopped liver, caviar, slabs of sable, beef Stroganoff, and skewers of lamb, all washed down with the bottle of Smirnoff vodka that was placed on each table. As a four-piece band that looked more Vegas than Moscow played Sinatra standards and Russian pop tunes, buxom bottle blondes in black leather miniskirts danced with barrel-chested men among the cabaret's Art Deco columns. A corner of the room was sometimes reserved for members of Hadassah, a woman's Zionist group, who came to express solidarity with the Russians. The club had odd brushes with celebrity. After an arch portrait of the Odessa appeared in The New Yorke r's "Talk of the Town," it briefly became a popular nightspot for thirty-something yuppies who wanted to savor beans in a Caucasian walnut sauce and the titillating aura of organized crime. And pop singer Taylor Dayne got her first break at the Odessa when she answered an ad in The Village Voice seeking musicians. Dayne, then a plump fifteen-year-old high school girl from Long Island, was friendly with Balagula, and her picture still hangs on the nightclub's wall. When director Paul Mazursky wanted to film the cabaret scene in Moscow on the Hudson with Robin Williams in the Odessa, Balagula declined, afraid of drawing too much attention to the club. The scene was shot at the National restaurant, a rival Brighton Beach mob hangout then owned by Alexander "Cabbagehead" Skolnick, a Danny DeVito look-alike with a violent streak. Late at night, after the last diner left the Odessa, the American version of the People's Court often convened upstairs in the disco. But unlike back in the Soviet Union, in Brighton Beach the tradition of influential criminals adjudicating local disputes "became corrupt," explained a prominent Russian émigré. "There is never a time when the judges don't take a piece of the action." The judges were often Balagula and two of his thugs, who meted out sentences while seated around a table in the cabaret. The lights were dimmed, and no food or water was provided. "It is very, very dark, like a Godfather movie," said an émigré who was summoned to several proceedings. "The first thing I said was ?Why don't you turn on the lights?' Silence. Total silence." It was just such a setting that greeted the small-time jewel thief Vyacheslav Lyubarsky, who was ordered to appear in "court" to settle a $40,000 gambling dispute. The judges quickly ruled against him, and when Lyubarsky balked, he was suspended, naked, from a light fixture. Then one of the judges, Emile Puzyretsky, whacked out on coke and vodka, threatened to disembowel him. Puzyretsky, who had spent twelve years in the Soviet Gulag for murder and was decorated with Technicolor tattoos of a skeleton, bats, a snow leopard, and an angel, had become one of Little Odessa's most feared enforcers. "He uses his knife on every occasion," notes his FBI file. As a newcomer to Brighton Beach, Elson found himself in a strange and unfamiliar land, and he had to learn a different set of survival skills. "One thing that disappointed me about America is that people don't carry money," he said with a frown. "Everything is credit card." He adapted in the manner he knew best: "I started working credit card scams, even though I didn't know how to speak English." Elson soon teamed up with forty-eight-year-old Yuri Brokhin, an intellectual of modest accomplishments who had immigrated to the United States with his wife in 1972. Since then he had managed to foster a reputation for himself as a prominent Russian Jewish dissident. He wrote two books, as well as articles for Dissent, Jewish Digest, and the New York Times Magazine, most of which were fierce anti-communist polemics. "I heard about Brokhin in Moscow," Elson said. "He was well known. His nickname was ?Student.' I used to call him ?Brain.' " Together, the pair embarked on a lucrative crime spree, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of jewelry, often using a simple, no-risk scam. Corruption in Manhattan's diamond district on 47th Street was so rampant at the time that the authorities had all but given up policing it. All Brokhin and Elson had to do was to identify crooked store-owners, visit their shops, and demand the goods. "We tried to rob thieves," Elson says. They knew that their "victims" were so deep into their own crimes that they'd never call the police, but would simply pass the losses on to their insurance companies. Soon, storeowners throughout the diamond district were seeking out the Russian robbers to stage fake burglaries so that they, too, could scam their insurers. The duo employed a different gambit to rob honest jewelers. They'd dress up as ultra-Orthodox Jews, replete with paste-on beards, side curls, long black coats, and black hats. Entering a jewelry store run by an Orthodox Jew, they would ask to see a variety of expensive diamond stones from the display case. Brokhin would babble away in Yiddish, distracting the salesman, while Elson switched the diamonds with zirconium. They'd continue to haggle, and after failing to make a deal, would slip away with the jewels tucked snugly inside the pockets of their coats. The con is called the "fast-finger." "We made a lot of money with that," Elson boasts. Once, after pulling the scam on a trip to Chicago, the two men were arrested in their Orthodox Jewish attire as they boarded a plane at Midway Airport. It happened to be Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, when observant Jews are strictly forbidden to travel. An airport security guard who was Jewish became suspicious, thinking the men looked more like Cuban terrorists than rabbis. Pictures of them in Hasidic garb appeared the next day in Chicago newspapers. Brokhin's wife rushed to Chicago with $175,000 in cash for bail; somehow, they both got off without a jail sentence. Their records were also expunged. "It's a lot of money to get off the hook" and beat a felony rap, said Elson enigmatically. Although they were pulling in good money, it was still a small-time operation and Elson was burning with ambition. He increasingly turned to vicious acts of drug-influenced extortion to make a name for himself. Failing to move up the criminal food chain, he decided to join the most powerful gang in Brighton Beach, headed by the rapacious Evsei Agron. Elson, however, was disappointed in his new boss's management style. "Agron wanted to be the sun, but he didn't want the sun's rays to fall on somebody else," Elson grumbled. "I wanted to kill him. But you see, it was not so easy." The tempestuous gangster from Kishinev realized that his future -- if he had one at all -- showed little promise in the Darwinian world of Brighton Beach. Frustrated, Elson trekked to the jungles of South America in 1984 to set up a cocaine smuggling operation. "I went to Peru, I went to Bolivia, I passed through a lot of South America," Elson recounted. Although he didn't yet speak Spanish, he ventured deep into the tropical rain forest to purchase cocaine. "I wasn't interested in one key, two keys, three keys. I was making huge deals," crowed Elson, who operated out of Europe and Israel. Still, the criminal big time eluded him and he was incarcerated in Israel for trafficking in cocaine. Years later, however, Elson would return to Brighton Beach with a vengeance, creating one of the most powerful Russian mob families in the world, while initiating a gang-land war that left a trail of bodies from the street corners of New York to the back alleys of Moscow. Copyright © 2000 Robert I. Friedman. All rights reserved.

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