Blood Sport: The Rise Of Russia's Gangster Athletes
May 08, 2016
by Carl Schreck
The heavies arrived at the pop-up marketplace on a frigid morning packing pistols, knives, and steel pipes. One strapping young man reportedly brandished a submachine gun. A day earlier, a group of thugs had pummeled a beefy ex-boxer nicknamed Broiler in a dispute over two leather coats sold by a merchant paying him protection money. Now, Broiler was back with a dozen of his allies in tow, staring at his assailants and the muscle they'd mobilized for the meeting.
The confrontation near the Devyatkino train station on Leningrad's northern outskirts escalated quickly. In the ensuing scrum, Broiler stabbed a martial arts coach nicknamed Fedya Crimea, who died at the hospital later that day -- December 18, 1988. The deadly brawl led to a schism between the two sides that clashed that day: the notorious Tambov and Malyshev crime syndicates, whose alleged links to allies of President Vladimir Putin are detailed in documents related to a Spanish warrant issued this week for the arrest of Russians including current and former officials.
Over the next decade, these groups would establish ties to the upper political echelon in the city where Putin grew up and began his political career. While they came to wield pervasive influence in St. Petersburg, with control over key industries and key officials in their pocket, their power base was initially on the streets, manned by members of a fearsome fraternity at the center of Russia's turbulent transition to capitalism: gangster athletes.
"In St. Petersburg, from 1992 to 1995, the power at the middle and lower levels of society was completely in the hands of gangster athletes. Completely," says Yevgeny Vyshenkov, a prominent Russian crime journalist and a former St. Petersburg police investigator.
They had nicknames like Sledgehammer and Flatiron, and they had come of age pounding heavy bags and pumping iron during the zenith of the Soviet sports machine. But as a capitalist free-for-all supplanted communist ideology amid Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika reforms -- and as the state's lavish spending on sports began to dry up -- legions of these athletes ditched their dreams of sporting glory and became ruthless mob enforcers.
With brute strength and a blase attitude toward life and death, these jocks served as foot soldiers in the protection rackets that helped define the era of gangster capitalism in Russia. It was a profession that the Soviet state had unwittingly trained them for in its relentless push for supremacy in the sports world.
"A combination of qualities, such as competitiveness and team spirit, physical aptitude and willpower, readiness to use force and to sustain injury, leadership and discipline, make [an athlete] particularly fit for violent entrepreneurship," Vadim Volkov notes in his 2002 book Violent Entrepreneurs: The Use of Force in the Making of Russian Capitalism.
The Soviet government incorporated sports into its official ideology while still in its infancy following the 1917 October Revolution. But it was after World War II that it made a serious push to deploy sporting excellence as evidence of the communist state's superiority over the capitalist West, establishing thousands of sports schools and clubs to identify and train future champions.
It was during this postwar push for sporting preeminence that Soviet athletes made their first serious contacts with the criminal underworld, says Vyshenkov, the author of a 2011 oral history of protection rackets in St. Petersburg and a former volleyball standout with deep contacts among gangster athletes in the city.
Boxing coaches in the city would toughen up their proteges by sending them out to the park to test their skills on street hoodlums who were armed with pocket knives and ambivalence toward the rules of the sweet science, he says.
Pickpockets, burglars, and black marketeers observing these dust-ups concluded that putting a pair of fists on the payroll could be a wise investment, Vyshenkov says. "A pickpocket works in the bus. These days if someone steals your wallet, the victim might just get angry. Back then you could get thrashed for it. And a thief needed a boxer to protect him."
As they grew closer to the leaders of Leningrad's underworld, the athletes glimpsed a life of illicit luxury that was far removed from the Soviet hoi polloi's humdrum existence.
"They invited them to restaurants and showed the boxers that there's such a thing as the good life," Vyshenkov said. "Pretty watches, pretty jackets, jazz. The boxers had never seen that. They'd seen poverty and labor. They didn't know anything else. And gradually the boxers started to become their friends -- and to protect them."
Gangster athletes were easily identifiable by their appearance: track suits, short haircuts, gold chains, and bulging muscles that earned them the nickname "kachki" --from the Russian word to pump up one's muscles.
As the criminal underworld began to grow in the 1970s and early 1980s under the shortage-plagued reign of Leonid Brezhnev, Soviet mafiosi began stationing athletes in bars and restaurants to effectively work as bouncers while black-market dealings were conducted. This job was a rite of passage for many gangster athletes both before and after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
"I calmed down people who were acting up. In general, I just made sure everything ran smoothly," Andrei, a 50-something former karate enthusiast and a veteran of one of the city's protection rackets, told RFE/RL on condition that he only be identified by a pseudonym.
Eventually this hired muscle bonded into a kind of informal union capable of mobilizing instantly if their intimidating presence was needed.
"Everyone who worked in those bars got along well. We had our own sort of corporate solidarity," reputed Tambov gang leader Vladimir Kumarin, whose influence among St. Petersburg officials earned him the moniker Night Governor, told crime journalist Andrei Konstantinov in Banditsky Peterburg (Bandit Petersburg), a seminal account of organized crime in Russia's northern capital during that era.
They were also eyeing opportunities for career advancement in this underground economy, Vyshenkov says, starting with a promotion to bartender, which paid better than the bouncer gig.
"Not only do we want to wear jeans, we want to drive Volgas. We don't just want red caviar, we want black caviar, too," Vyshenkov says. "And gradually they become bartenders, they gradually start to infiltrate and seize the business. They have little knowledge, but a lot of confidence."
It was Gorbachev's rise in 1985 and his subsequent reforms that ultimately propelled gangster athletes to the frontlines of a brutal battle for wealth nationwide. Thirty years ago this November, his government passed a law on individual enterprise that would help trigger the proliferation of "cooperatives" -- small businesses that would form the bedrock of the of the Soviet Union's nascent market economy as the government's grip over citizens began to wane. Soviet athletes didn't miss their chance.
"As the state weakens to the point that it can no longer effectively contain violence, sports, especially fighting sports and the martial arts, can supply everything needed to create a racketeering gang: fighting skills, will power, discipline, and team spirit," Volkov writes in Violent Entrepreneurs.
Their business model could essentially be boiled down into the mob cliche: "Nice place you got here. Be a shame if something happened to it." But they also provided a valuable service, Volkov and Vyshenkov argue: Because the communist superpower had few effective mechanisms to regulate business disputes, the country's emerging entrepreneurs needed some way of enforcing contracts and protecting their assets.
"A market is born, and it has to be regulated," Vyshenkov says. "What does it mean to regulate? 'You're right, you're wrong. Give it to him.' Who is going to do that? Suddenly athletes see a niche. They enter this market and say: 'We'll decide who's right and who's wrong. But we're going to collect taxes in exchange.'"
City markets and other forums "for the free economic exchange of privately produced goods," Volkov writes, "began to attract those who were able and willing to display and use force."
"Former [athletes] were the pioneers of this movement -- gyms and sports clubs were the initial breeding grounds for the fresh wave of organized crime," he adds.
Andrei, the St. Petersburg racketeering gang veteran who spoke to RFE/RL, recalled the case of a businessman whose bank collapsed.
"He was left with a pile of debt, and they started tearing him apart like a terrier does a badger. The good thing for all sides was that we caught him first," Andrei said. "We even had to live with him, 24 hours a day over the course of two weeks without letting him out of our sight. And of course he ended up paying.…We ate and drank off that money."
In the beginning, gangster athletes' chief weapon was brute strength. But by 1988, the same year that Gorbachev fully legalized cooperatives, a Soviet Interior Ministry organized crime specialist named Aleksandr Gurov told a Moscow newspaper: "There are a lot of athletes among these warriors. Unfortunately, it's no problem for them to get their hands on a gun."
At the time of Gurov's interview, the Soviet Union boasted that 250,000 of its citizens had achieved the Master of Sport qualification. Some 12,000 were deemed masters of an international caliber, while more than 3,000 had earned the country's most exclusive athletic title: Decorated Master of Sport.
Most of the Soviet and, later, Russian athletes who moved into protection rackets specialized in combat sports -- martial arts, boxing, wrestling -- or weightlifting and bodybuilding. They ranged from amateur gym rats to international stars like Yury Sokolov, a world and European judo champion from Leningrad. He reportedly oversaw a gang of boxers before being killed in murky circumstances in 1990 at the age of 28.
"Most of the people who came into organized crime in this way, they were muscle rather than mind. They weren't really the gang leaders and the planners," says Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian organized crime and a professor at New York University.
There were exceptions. The Solntsevtsaya organized crime group, based in Moscow but with an international reach, has long been said to be headed by businessman Sergei Mikhailov, a Soviet master of sport in wrestling. Authorities in Russia, the United States, and Europe have identified Mikhailov as a leading player in Russia's criminal underworld, though he has never been convicted on organized crime charges. Known by the nickname Mikhas, Mikhailov boasted in 2014 that Putin had honored him with a watch as a gift, a claim the Kremlin denied the claim.
The rise of gangster athletes did not go unnoticed in Washington. A 1991 report by the CIA on Soviet organized crime noted that "gangs often recruit former top athletes because they have access to modern weapons and cars, unlimited funds, and good connections abroad."
"Athletes, in turn, may join gangs to continue living the 'good life' they lose when their government stipends end. Organized crime allows some athletes to translate their physical strength and prowess into quick money," the report adds.
Moscow and Leningrad weren't the only stomping grounds of gangster athletes: they operated in major cities across the country's 11 time zones.
They even extended their reach into the Russian-speaking enclave of Brighton Beach in New York City. It was under the elevated subway tracks there one night in January 1994 that a gunman shot a reputed mob enforcer named Oleg Korotayev once in the head at point-blank range, killing him instantly, and fled. Korotayev was a three-time Soviet boxing champion who in 1974 defeated future undisputed world heavyweight boxing champion Leon Spinks of the United States at a tournament in Havana.
Legend has it that Fidel Castro personally presented Korotayev with a machete after the light-heavyweight impressed the Cuban leader at a tournament in Havana four years earlier.
By the time Korotayev's brains were blown out in Brighton Beach, a massive bloodletting among gangster athletes was already under way back in the motherland as well. The Soviet collapse had further empowered organized crime groups in Russia as money from protection rackets and all manner of official malfeasance sloshed around chaotically.
"We always had money in our pockets. Always," says Andrei, the former St. Petersburg gangster. "We were well fed. Of course, now I only regret that I didn't buy any damn apartments with that money. We snorted and drank away so many apartments."
The competition among rival gangs for these riches became increasingly bloody, sparking turf wars in which mob bosses, businessmen, and politicians expired seemingly daily in a barrage of bullets or the blast of a deftly placed car bomb.
"From 1990 to 2000, around 6,000 people died in such conflicts," Konstantinov told RFE/RL's Russian Service recently. "By comparison, in the same amount of time we had 14,000 people die in the [Soviet] war in Afghanistan. And that was just in St. Petersburg."
That gangster athletes were frequent victims of this carnage is unsurprising. Volkov estimated in his 2000 book that "three out of five middle- and upper-ranking members of groups specializing in private enforcement have athletic backgrounds."
"The Romans forgot how they stood side-by-side in the cohorts and fended off the enemy's onslaught," says Vyshenkov. "They forgot how they died for one another. It ceased to matter. It was every man for himself."
Andrei recalls his work becoming increasingly perilous, particularly at meetings -- called "strelki" -- of rival racketeering gangs to resolve business disputes between their respective clients. "People started showing up at strelki all jumpy and didn't know what to expect," he said.
Like many of the toughs that populated the protection rackets in that era, several of Andrei's colleagues didn't survive the decade. Some were killed or simply disappeared. Another was shot dead and chopped up into pieces "like in an American movie."
"How did I stay alive? Well, thank God I didn't end up owing anyone anything, and thank God I didn't really know anything that was worth killing me over. I just gradually got out of the business," said Andrei, who in recent years worked as a middle-manager in the construction industry.
As the decade came to a close and Putin's ascent began, Russian law enforcement officers began supplanting the gangs in the protection business, Andrei says. "Nobody wanted to fight with them anymore because there would be only one ending: jail," he said.
The more fortunate veterans of the racketeering game became "shareholders in something, had homes," he added. "They were the New Russians, the new millionaires, the new oligarchs. The rest were either already dead, smashed up or rotting away in jail somewhere. They were of no use to anyone."
Those gangster athletes who did survive included several senior members of the Tambov and Malyshev gangs, to which Spanish prosecutors have tied several current and former Russian officials, including some close to Putin.
The man for whom the Malyshev gang is named -- a former wrestler named Aleksandr Malyshev -- fled back to Russia last year after skipping bail in Spain following his arrest in 2008. Soviet master of sport Mikhail Glushchenko, a former high-ranking Tambov gang member and a quick-fisted boxer who relied on precision rather than power, is currently imprisoned after being convicted of extortion and organizing the 1998 murder of Galina Starovoitova, a widely respected lawmaker from St. Petersburg. Glushchenko, who was reportedly involved in the 1988 brawl between the Tambov and Malyshev gang members at the Leningrad marketplace, served as a deputy in Russia's lower house of parliament in the mid-1990s.
Glushchenko has since fingered Kumarin, the reputed Tambov leader once known as the Night Governor of St. Petersburg, as the mastermind behind Starovoitova's slaying. Kumarin, who now goes by the last name Barsukov and is currently serving a 14-year prison sentence on gang-related charges, denies his involvement in the murder.
As for Broiler, the Malyshev gang member who stabbed Fedya Crimea to death at the 1988 brawl at the Devyatkino train station: He served time for the crime and then, after his release, as president of a charity organization led by Putin's political mentor Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of St. Petersburg from 1991-1996. A former city boxing champ in Minsk, Broiler survived an apparent assassination attempt in 1997, when his car was riddled with bullets by unidentified assailants. Four years later, he finished his dissertation, titled Strategy For Ensuring Production Effectiveness In A Market Economy.
According to Vyshenkov's oral history of protection rackets in St. Petersburg, published in 2011, Broiler -- whose real name is Sergei Miskaryov -- is a "millionaire."
Copyright (c) 2016. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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