In the belly of the beast: what the hit on ‘Yaponchik’ says about Russian organised crime

On the evening of Tuesday 28 July, the Russian vor v zakone (‘thief within the code’) Vyacheslav Ivankov, better known as ‘Yaponchik’ or ‘Little Jap’, had just finished a working dinner at the Thai Elephant restaurant on the Khoroshevskoye Shosse in northern Moscow. Although accompanied by a bodyguard, as he came onto the street, a sniper using a Dragunov SVD sniper rifle put from one to three bullets into his stomach (reports vary), leaving him seriously injured, albeit not dead.

On one level, this might seem of little real significance. Most of Russia’s still-common assassinations and contract killings are not of innocent civilians and investigative journalists but mobsters and their clients and associates. However, there are reasons to read rather more into this hit and to see the shootings as, if not a ‘shot heard around the world’, at least one heard around the Russian underworld.

First of all, the target. In Ivankov’s almost 70 years, he has amassed a formidable range of convictions, and in many ways his career offers an interesting window into the life of a vor v zakone and the way the mafiya evolved and expanded abroad.  Born in 1940, from his adolescence he was a member of the Vorovskoi mir (‘Thieves’ World’), a distinctive Russian underworld subculture nurtured and shaped by the Gulag labour camp system. In the 1970s, getting his first jail sentence on assault charges. In the 1960s, he joined one of the most ruthless gangs in Moscow, run by the criminal Gennadi Korkov, known as the ‘Mongol’, who dominated the city’s underworld until his arrest in 1972. Following ‘Mongol’s arrest, Ivankov moved to Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, where he was ‘crowned’ as a vor v zakone, the authority figures of the Vorovskoi mir, and became one of the senior godfathers of the Soviet Far East.  In 1980 he was arrested and eventually sentenced to 15 years for a robbery in Irkutsk along with additional firearms and forgery charges.  He served 11 years in prison, but in this time his stature only grew as a mover and shaker within mafiya politics.  On his release in 1991, he was flown back to Moscow by privately-chartered jet, and welcomed by fellow vory at a lavish party at the prestigious Metropole Hotel, but he also posed something of a conundrum. On the one hand, he was seen as a powerful asset but on the other a potentially dangerous new player in Moscow’s underworld, so at a skhodka or underworld summit held in Vedentsevo that December, he was charged with bringing émigré Russian organized crime in the USA – largely the so-called Organizatsiya, based in New York’s Brighton Beach – into the wider networks of Russian crime.

In 1992, he arrived in the USA, ostensibly with an interest in establishing joint film projects, but soon eliminated local figures within the Brighton Beach mob and while not taking it over, certainly established fruitful connections with the mafiya of the Motherland (and especially the Solntsevo grouping) which continue today.  Ivankov was arrested by the FBI in June 1995 and convicted for running a scheme to extort $3.5 million from two Russian businessmen, then extradited to Russia in 2004 to face charges of murdering two Turkish nationals. However, he was controversially acquitted and walked free.

Although welcomed back into the underworld, in many ways Ivankov had become an anachronism. A thuggish, tattooed veteran of the Gulags who had no qualms about getting his own hands dirty, he did not fit with the new generation of young, besuited avtoritety (‘authorities’), the criminal-businessmen who came to dominate the mafiya in the latter 1990s. He was respected but did not fit in, being too powerful to be a lieutenant, too uncouth to be a partner. He has no ‘gang’ of his own, seemingly no substantive current criminal activities, nothing which would seem to make him a rival or a threat. In many ways he seems to have fallen back on one of the classic roles of a vor v zakone: arbitrating mob disputes. As such, he would normally have been regarded to have had immunity from assassination so long as he observed the neutrality of his role, and even then his partiality would have to be argued out in a skhodka. There does not seem to have been any such conclave and that he was marked for death suggests the codes which govern the Russian underworld are coming under pressure.

The second distinctive characteristic of this hit is after all the cast of apparent players. Ivankov was trying to resolve a dispute allegedly between Aslan Usoyan and Tariel Oniani, two gangsters with a long rivalry dating back to 2005. Usoyan, known as ‘Ded Khasan’ (‘Grandfather Khasan’), is a veteran known for being a cunning operator. Based in St Petersburg, he is perhaps the most powerful counterweight to the Tambov grouping in Russia’s second city and although an ethnic Kurd had also become a de facto spokesman for the Chechen, Ingush and other North Caucasian gangs in their rivalries with the large Georgian community within the Russian underworld. Oniani, on the other hand, is the most powerful Georgian gangster in Russia and rather more aggressive in his activities, especially since fleeing Spain in 2005, where he is wanted on a range of charges. He was detained in the 2008 raid but then released, arrested again in June 2009 and charged with kidnapping a Georgian businessman.

A major gathering of underworld figures on a yacht on a reservoir outside Moscow in July 2008 – which the police stormed in a dramatic helicopter raid which, a cynic might note, made for great media coverage but strikingly few convictions – was convened specifically to try and broker a peace deal. However, neither Khasan nor Oniani appear willing to compromise, but neither is willing to be seen as intransigent lest they alienate the other kingpins, hence the current negotiations. Ivankov was willing to take on the role of a mediator but it also seems clear that he was inclining towards supporting Khasan. If so, it may be that Oniani ordered the hit – something in breach of Vorovskoi mir custom and practice but in line with his own past actions.

Why might he have been willing to do this? (Of course, this is all just conjecture.) And why might he have thought he could get away with this? Perhaps most important, then, is the third point: the context. Rivalries between gangs are part of the daily ebb and flow of the Russian underworld, but they have in recent years been kept at a manageable level both because the state under Putin made it clear it was not willing to tolerate the overt gangsterism of the Yeltsin years and also because the booming Russian economy ensured there were new opportunities for all. Fear and greed make for excellent foundations and in this time a widening gulf emerged between the bandity (‘bandits’), largely of lesser moment, who clung to the old staples of organised crime – drugs, protection racketeering, loansharking and the like – and the avtoritety, who relied increasingly on corruption, embezzlement, financial crimes and other white-collar criminality. The vory v zakone, their tattoos, rituals and codes increasingly became regarded as a macho relic of the past. The financial slowdown has hit the avtoritety hardest and increasingly they are trying to move back into the ‘bandit businesses’ which are proving more robust. In doing so, they necessarily intrude into the turfs of the bandits. As a result, the balance of power is shifting and gangs are beginning to clash over criminal resources, while having abandoned the old customs which have in the past helped manage these rivalries.

As if this were not serious enough, the recent decision of the government to illegalise most gambling has opened up a lucrative new opportunity to the criminals at the very time when their fingers are closest to their triggers and their need for new income is greatest. Thus, it is possible to speculate that the attempt to kill Ivankov does not just highlight the decay of the old vor rules of behaviour in Russia, nor is it simply a product of a long-running dispute between two gangs, but signals the growing pressures within the underworld, which are driving it towards a new round of turf wars, maybe even to rival those of the ‘wild 90s’.

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