Red Mafiya: How the Russian Mob Has Invaded America by Robert I. Friedman

Little, Brown and Company 2000 296 pp. 25.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Journalist Robert I. Friedman has a contract out on his life. The reason? Friedman has been doing his job in reporting the news. The object of his research however, has been the Russian Mafiya , which has become the most violent, unpredictable, and fastest growing crime organization in America today.

An American of Russian-Jewish descent, Friedman is remarkably well-positioned to report on the Mayfia, since most Mafiya members are themselves Russian Jews. This curious fact owes its origin to the efforts, during the Nixon administration, of Democratic Senator Scoop Jackson to link trade concessions with Jewish emigration.

"In the two-year period between 1972 and 1973 alone, more than 66,000 Russian Jews emigrated, compared to just 2,808 in 1969. . . . 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."

While the Italian Mafia has a singular link between Italy and America, the Russian Mafiya is more international. Ironically, in a Jewish transit camp near Rome, many Russian-Jewish career criminals met, exchanged information, and then dispersed. "Once the mobsters reached their destinations, they could phone up their new friends for criminal advice, intelligence, and additional contacts." Hence, they created the "Red Octopus . . . a global organized crime monster."

The Russians seem crazier in their violence than do the Italians. While the Mafia uses violence to punish enemies surgically, the Mafiya will kill the enemy, his wife, his children, and his friends, both as a theatrical warning to competitors and for the sheer joy of bloody, tyrannical violence. In addition, while the Mafia focuses on a few criminal enterprises, the Mafiya will go after what is close at hand, whether it be smuggling, credit-card fraud, protection rackets, or other illicit diversions.

"In North America alone, there are now thirty Russian crime syndicates operating in at least seventeen U.S. cities, most notably New York, Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Denver." As one of Friedman's interviewees states, "The Russians didn't come here to enjoy the American dream . . . They came here to steal it."

Friedman traces the development of the Mafiya in America by focusing on the stories of individual mobsters, tracing their rise in the organization from Russian street-toughs, to Gulag prisoners, to international career criminals. Along the way we meet, among others, Monya Elson, "the most prolific hit man in Russian mob history," his wife, Marina, who "has so many bullet fragments lodged in her body that she sets off metal detectors at airports," Vyascheslav Ivankov, a monstrous hooligan who divided his time-and crimes-between New York and Miami, and Semion Mogilevich, "the world's most dangerous gangster."

As frightening as the mobsters' stories are, what may be more chilling is the tardy and ineffective governmental reponse to burgeoning Russian criminal activity in the U.S.

"But in general, state and federal law enforcement agencies were loath to go after Russian mobsters, instead devoting their energies to bagging Italian wiseguys . . . And because the Russian mob was mostly Jewish, it was a political hot potato, especially in the New York area." Combine this inattentiveness with an almost complete lack of Russian-speaking cops and you have a formula for the illicit growth of organized criminal activity on an international scale.

What has yet to filter down into American popular consciousness is the extent to which the fall of Communism energized Russian criminal activity. During an eleven-year period beginning during Gorbachev's reign, "perhaps as much as $600 billion was spirited out of the country, in the greatest looting of a nation in world history." The cooperation among the KGB, the "greedy nomenklatura," and the "criminal demimonde" resulted in a criminal war chest of staggering proportions, one that only increased as the Mafiya mastered the arts of looting banks, laundering money, setting up fraudulent stock schemes, and murdering their opponents.

Red Mafiya is an intriguing, important book about the current generation of organized criminals, some of whom live in that nice three-bedroom house right down the street from you.