Requiem for a Russian Mobster

Is it just me, or has 2009 been exceptionally rich in the deaths of legendary figures?  In August, Ted Kennedy was finally reunited in heaven with Mary Jo Kopechne. In July a much more interesting man, Harry Patch, the last veteran of World War I, died aged 111.

Only a few days after Kennedy expired, Sergei Mikhalkov, the Stalin-loving author of the lyrics to three versions of the Soviet and Russian national anthem also shuffled off this mortal coil. And what about Walter Cronkite, Ed McMahon, etc? All of these deaths were recognized as significant breaks with the past, symbolic passings that marked the end of an era, even if the era in question had actually come to a close decades earlier. On October 12th yet another such mega-death was marked in Russia, as Vyacheslav Ivankov AKA Yaponchik was buried in Moscow’s Vagankovskoye cemetery. Although his name is less well known than Ted Kennedy’s, Yaponchik’s life and career are highly significant nevertheless, for as the most notorious Russian mobster of the 1990s he was a living (until recently, anyway) symbol of an era of near-total societal collapse, the repercussions of which are still felt today.

Vyacheslav Ivankov was born in 1940 to Russian parents living in Stalin’s homeland of Georgia. By the late 1960s he was based in Moscow, where he joined the notorious ‘Gang of the Mongol’, one of the few racketeering groups that existed in the USSR at the time. As an amateur wrestling champ, Ivankov combined both discipline and muscle, invaluable assets to Soviet gangsters in the days before they had access to guns and bombs; indeed, many early Russian criminal gangs were formed by sportsmen. The nickname Yaponchik (‘Little Japanese’) was either a reference to his vaguely Asian appearance, mastery of Jiu-Jitsu or subordinate status to mob boss Gennady Karkov, the ‘Mongol’ (take your pick).

According to sociologist Vadim Volkov there was a simple reason why racketeers reappeared in Russia at this moment in history:

“The Soviet shadow economy greatly expanded in the 1970s. It comprised a variety of businesses that grew sporadically to exploit gaps and loopholes in the state economy: the illegal production of consumer goods and alcohol, the concealment of legally produced goods from state accounting offices, various ventures for appropriating state property, antique businesses, swindling, underground gambling facilities…”

But while corrupt soviet officials were seizing the opportunity to enrich themselves, they did not want to attract attention by flaunting their wealth, and thus sat on enormous piles of cash. Between 1969 and 1972 the Gang of the Mongol specialized in identifying these crooks and liberating them from their ill-gotten gains until Mongol was caught and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Yaponchik however actually benefited from a much shorter period of incarceration during which he was initiated into the soviet penal system’s legendary hierarchy of thieves-in-law, thus acquiring the status of master criminal. In his book Godfather of the Kremlin, the late Paul Klebnikov supplied this description of the mobster unbound in the 1970s:

“…the Jap (Yaponchik) developed an extensive operation extorting money from black market entrepreneurs and corrupt officials; he also smuggled narcotics, jewelry, icons, and antiques. He had a reputation for flamboyant brutality, often taking recalcitrant black marketers into the woods outside town and torturing them. According to one legend, when the Jap was crossed by a Moscow restaurant manager, he had the man buried alive and a road paved over him. ‘Killing someone is as easy as lighting up a cigarette,’ he apparently liked to say. From Riga to Sverdlov, from Kazan to Moscow, he left a trail of fear.”

Yaponchik pursued his criminal career until 1981 when he was convicted of banditry and sentenced to fourteen years in prison. In 1991 however he was released on grounds of ill health after numerous grandees had petitioned for release, among them (allegedly) Iosif Kobzon, the Soviet Frank Sinatra, and Sergei Kovalyov a close ally of the legendary dissident Andrei Sakharov. As often happens in such cases Yaponchik’s health miraculously improved and he was soon back at work, emerging as the leading mobster in the unholy union of future oligarchs, criminal thugs and foreign carpetbaggers that were stripping post-soviet Russia of her most valuable assets.

Yaponchik had big ideas however, and in 1992 he moved to the USA, apparently with the intention of transforming the Russian mafia into a global organisation. His base was in Brighton Beach, where he extorted money from immigrants, periodically taking breaks to preside over mafia summits in cities such as Vienna. In 1996 however he was arrested by the FBI and sentenced to nine years and seven months in Pennsylvania’s Allenwood high-security prison for Green Card fraud and extortion. But Yaponchik’s criminal career was far from over: in 2004 he was extradited to Moscow to face charges that in 1991 he and a friend had shot two Turks in a restaurant because, as the Russian Kommersant newspaper put it—‘…the coat-check staff at the restaurant, hoping for a large tip from the foreigners, served them first.’ Don’t you just hate it when that happens?

Funnily enough, when the case went to trial none of the five witnesses recognized Yaponchik, not even the arresting policeman. Indeed, one of them, displaying both a remarkable eye for detail and a prodigious memory, insisted that the killer—unlike Yaponchik—had a gold crown on his teeth. Yaponchik was duly released, a free man for the first time in eight years. Kommersant dryly reported that during his imprisonment Yaponchik had apparently discovered his softer side: ‘…he wrote a cycle of poems…as well as tales for children and his autobiography, which has the working title Against the Wind.‘

After his acquittal Yaponchik spent most of his time outside Russia. The world had changed since his heyday in the early 90s. The chaotic era of open, rampant criminality had passed, and the wealthy ‘businessmen’ who at one time might have feared him—or paid for his services—were now far more powerful than the mob boss. They wanted to consolidate their gains, and ingratiate themselves with Putin’s ‘dictatorship of law’. Tracksuits and BMWs were out; smart suits and the language of international business were in. The Russian mob returned to the traditional spheres of criminal enterprise: drugs, prostitution, gambling. That’s the received wisdom anyway—but in 2005 when a Moscow businesswoman I worked for was under severe pressure from powerful rivals and state security agencies, it was Yaponchik she called upon to save her skin, suggesting that the old crook still had a lot of influence.

And now he is dead. According to RIA Novosti, he was shot in July by snipers after traveling to Moscow ‘to settle a dispute between two criminal groups controlling Moscow’s gambling business.’ It took him nearly four months to die, but finally he got a little of what was coming to him.

Why am I telling you this story? Well, imagine for a second that American power collapsed, and the country was overrun by crooks and killers who barely bothered to conceal their criminality. Imagine that the worst elements of organised crime rubbed shoulders with politicians and business, stealing and killing with impunity, while hardworking, honest people endured lives of squalor. This is more or less what happened in Russia in the early 90s, as Yeltsin—an incompetent buffoon even in his rare moments of sobriety—abandoned the citizens of his country to the wolves. Yaponchik was one of the biggest wolves of all. During this period Russians were stripped of hope and illusions, and Democracy was retitled Dermokratiya or ‘Shitocracy’. In short, understand the career of Yaponchik and his contemporaries and it is possible to grasp why Vladimir Putin who tossed out ‘freedom’ but restored a modicum of ‘order’ (and made Russia feared again), enjoys so much support among so many of his people. Ignore the symbol of Yaponchik however and the politics of the country will make little sense.

And now, with Yaponchik’s death, the immediate post-soviet era of outright lawlessness recedes further into memory, into legend—where it causes a little less pain to those who have to live with its legacy.

From the Coliseum October 2009

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