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Russian Gangs Of New York

Alexandre Grant (right), a Russian emigre crime writer, stands with convicted murderer and extortionist Monya Elson at Brighton Beach in 2003.

When journalist Alexandre Grant began covering crime some 25 years ago, gangsters and roughnecks who'd decamped from the teetering Soviet Union roamed New York City's Russian-speaking neighborhoods, menacing emigres with extortion rackets and brazen contract hits.

That scene is largely gone -- a good thing, to be sure, for entrepreneurs who once shuddered at hearing the Russian equivalent of "Nice place you got here. Be a shame if something happened to it."

Grant, though, betrays a certain nostalgia for that brutish era, one bereft of cookie-cutter cybercrimes that land Russian-speaking criminal groups in authorities' crosshairs nowadays.

"Things have gotten more boring," the 70-year-old Grant said in an interview. "All of these cybercrimes look exactly the same. Some hacker breaks into a system and gets 2 million credit-card numbers. He sells the credit cards, and the exact same thing happens again. Only the names change."

In a career spanning nearly three decades, Grant has covered the rise and fall of New York City's ruthless gangsters from the former Soviet Union, a criminal caste commonly wedged under the umbrella term "Russian mafia" despite the array of nationalities it comprises.

Along the way, he has become arguably the most prolific and well-connected chronicler of these Eurasian crime syndicates' New York City exploits.

A former correspondent for the venerable emigre newspaper "Novoye Russkoye Slovo," Grant has cultivated convicted murderers and extortionists as sources and landed interviews with notorious reputed crime kingpins like Ukrainian-born Semion Mogilevich, listed by the FBI on its "10 Most Wanted" list of fugitives.

When bodies began piling up in the turf wars that rocked Russian-speaking New York neighborhoods like Brighton Beach in the 1990s, it was Grant that U.S. journalists turned to to make sense of the murky motivations and underworld machinations behind the bloodshed.

It's been a "good 10 years" since guns served as these gangsters' primary tool for seizing filthy lucre, says Grant. "The main kind of violence nowadays in the Russian-speaking community is domestic violence or drunken fights," he said.

But it's not just the criminals who have changed. In the 1990s, the emigre community proved virtually impervious to law enforcement authorities' attempts to get witnesses to attach their names to testimony.

"First and foremost they were afraid of physical retribution," Grant said. "Secondly, they were afraid of cooperation itself, because cooperation with authorities in the Soviet Union was considered, if not a sin, then at least something very unseemly."

With the greater integration of this community into American life since the fall of the Soviet Union, the situation nowadays "is completely different," he said. "A jewelry store owner said recently, 'If a person comes to me and says that I owe him protection money, I'll call the police before he gets out the door.'"

'Precarious Balancing Act'

Matters of crime and punishment have played an outsized role in Grant's life ever since he can remember. Born into a Jewish family in Moscow in 1944, his father was a criminal defense attorney who represented clients ranging from street hustlers to senior secret police officials. "My father taught me that no one is safe from ending up in prison," he said.

He became disenchanted with the Soviet government as a teenager, embracing a hipster subculture consumed with all things American, mastering English during Nikita Khrushchev's thaw. "I had rather tense relations with the Soviet government from the very beginning," he said. "We didn't like one another. But it had more resources."

A graduate of Moscow State University's journalism faculty, Grant befriended Western reporters working in Moscow, ties that would eventually land him in prison for political crimes.

In the mid-1960s, Grant said, he visited European journalists living in a diplomatic compound in central Moscow. There he passed on a samizdat transcript of the trial of Soviet poet Joseph Brodsky on charges of "parasitism" to a reporter for a French newspaper.

In what Grant calls a "strange story," he was detained by a pair of volunteer street guardians known as "druzhiniky," who said he resembled a suspected thief they were searching for. Fifteen minutes later, he said, he was at the notorious KGB headquarters at Lubyanka Square.

He was convicted of disseminating anti-Soviet propaganda and violating currency laws by purchasing items with money he'd obtained from Western diplomats and sentenced to five years in a prison camp.

A year and a half after his release, he struck and killed a pedestrian while driving a car in Moscow, was convicted of vehicular manslaughter, and handed a seven-year sentence.

The 12 years in Soviet prisons and jails, Grant said, became a singular influence in his life. "I consider it one of the most positive periods of my life, because that is where I matured and that's where I learned to understand what is good and what is bad," he added.

His time behind bars would also prove useful to his future career writing about crime. He said he met fellow inmates who would go on to lead organized crime groups in Moscow, and that his criminal record later helped him seamlessly navigate sources on both sides of the law.

"A journalist who writes about this subject sits on the fence between these two worlds," he said. "It's a precarious balancing act, because FBI agents from the Russian department trust me, and lawbreakers trust me as well."

Mingling With Mobsters

Grant was released from prison the second time in 1985, and thanks to fictitious Jewish relatives in Israel, he emigrated a year and a half later and landed in New York City. He settled in Queens, which drew emigres from Moscow and Leningrad, whereas Brighton Beach became a magnet for immigrants from Ukraine and elsewhere in the Soviet Union.

He joined "Novoye Russkoye Slovo" almost immediately and took over the crime beat a few years later, when the gas tax and Medicare fraud schemes that had occupied Soviet emigre crime groups were petering out under pressure from U.S. authorities.

Amid the collapsing Soviet Union, a new wave of hardened criminals began to make their way to the United States, a contingent that the head of the FBI's organized-crime section described in 1994 as "the first string," as opposed to the "second string" who made up the first influx of Soviet criminals that emigrated to the United States in the 1970s and 1980s.

Grant says he was drawn to the drama and swashbuckling of the Soviet emigre crime scene at the time, when crime bosses like Boris Nayfeld, Marat Balagula, and Monya Elson jostled for control of lucrative illicit markets in New York City.

He became acquainted with Oleg Korotayev, a former champion Soviet boxer who had transitioned into a career as a mob enforcer and had his brains blown out onto the streets of Brighton Beach by an unidentified gunman late one night in January 1994.

"He wasn't a great guy," Grant said of Korotayev, who in 1974 defeated future undisputed world heavyweight boxing champion Leon Spinks.

Grant also developed a rapport with Elson, who has served time for murder and extortion and was described by prominent organized crime expert and journalist Jerry Capeci as one of the "toughest, most feared Russian gangsters ever to make his mark on U.S. soil."

But perhaps no reputed mob boss impressed Grant like Mogilevich, who is wanted in the United States on charges of fraud and money laundering, among other indictments, and was once reportedly described by Elson as "the most powerful the world."

Grant traveled to Paris with his wife in the mid-1990s when a Georgian mob boss he declined to identify recognized him on the street. The two men had served time in the same prison camp in the Soviet Komi Republic, Grant said, and the gangster offered to introduce him to Mogilevich, who happened to be in town.

Mogilevich, who is now believed to be living in Russia, passed him a business card. When his name surfaced a few years later in connection with high-profile international criminal investigations, Grant rang up the man known as the "Brainy Don" and traveled to Moscow to interview him.

"There were people around him that I didn't know," Grant said. "They were talking amongst themselves, and I had a feeling like I was at a government cabinet meeting. They were talking about deliveries that needed to be made: send four airplanes with this cargo there, send four trains of wheat over there, send the coal over there. It was like they were deciding the fate of the country."

'Too Americanized'

The wild days of the Russian-speaking mafia scene in New York City may have passed, but Grant remains busy. He pens columns for a range of emigre publications, delivers daily radio reports on crime news in the city, and hosts television programs on U.S. politics.

He visits his native Moscow once or twice a year, but said he felt no temptation to return for good. "Spiritually it's a completely foreign country and foreign city to me now," Grant said. "I've become too Americanized."

While the material may not be as sexy these days, and Brighton Beach shoot-outs between Eurasian crime groups rarely, if ever, make headlines anymore, Grant continues to build underworld relationships. Even with those convicted of crimes that make him yawn.

When Vadim Vassilenko, who was convicted by U.S. prosecutors last year of laundering money for a cybercrime ring, made his first blog post after being deported back to his native Ukraine last month, he let readers know where they could get the story.

"Vadim Vassilenko here," he wrote on October 30. "Note to all: I have been deported. Details in the article by Alexandre Grant."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.