‘Russian Mafia’ : KGB Steers Criminals to U.S. Careers

Times Staff Writers

During his years of imprisonment, Soviet dissident Anatoly Sharansky chanced to meet a Russian criminal, a professional con artist who was pursuing a bizarre goal: Despite the rigors of prison life, he was diligently studying English in hopes of emigrating to America--to ply his trade as a swindler.

America, he declared, was a land of easy pickings. Three of his friends were already there.

“But how will you get there?” asked the astonished Sharansky, who knew first-hand how hard it is for Russians to get permission to leave their homeland. “You aren’t Jewish.”


“The KGB will help me,” the confident swindler replied. The Soviet secret police had helped his friends get to the United States by obtaining exit visas to Israel, he said, and he expected the same.

Practical Reasons

Sharansky’s encounter, described in a recent interview, reflects growing evidence that the KGB has systematically helped criminals leave the Soviet Union. And U.S. officials say the Kremlin appears to have, from its point of view, two eminently practical reasons for doing so:

--First, to be rid of the criminals--much as President Fidel Castro did when he opened Cuban jails during the Mariel boatlift a decade ago.

--Second, to create a network in the West for their agents.

Under Soviet law, members of ethnic and national minority groups who have relatives in the West are theoretically allowed to emigrate to their “historic homeland.” Soviet Jews make up by far the most prominent group seeking to take advantage of this rule, but ethnic Germans, Armenians and others are also sometimes allowed to leave. Jews get permission to go to Israel but most now come instead to the United States, where they also have relatives.

Lives of Crime

Some of these emigres embark on or continue lives of crime here as part of groups known to U.S. law enforcement officials as “the Russian Mafia” and “Russian Jews.” In fact, although they are often associated with the Italian Mafia, the Russian gangs are themselves not well organized, the officials say. And as Sharansky’s encounter suggests, some may not even be Jewish.

“Soviet yes, but Jewish, I’m not so sure,” said a Brooklyn district attorney’s aide who deals with criminals in the Brighton Beach area, where many Soviet emigres now live.


“They (the Soviets) deported these guys under the guise of letting Jews go,” echoed a Baltimore detective. “Some are Jews, sure, but I know they also sent Gypsies as Jews. To me, they were just exporting thieves.”

According to a report by the President’s Commission on Organized Crime, the more than 200,000 Soviet immigrants who arrived over the last two decades “included a significant number of criminals who were forced to leave Russia.” It suggested that by means of Jewish emigration:

“The Soviet Union attempted to empty their prisons and rid their society of undesirables, much as (Cuba’s) Fidel Castro did several years later during the Mariel boatlift. . . . Some agents of the KGB were included among the large numbers of Russian emigres. . . . (A) possible connection (exists) between the KGB and Russian immigrants now involved in organized crime here.

“Approximately 12 Russian organized crime groups” exist in New York, with other groups in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, Dallas, Portland, Boston, Miami and San Francisco, the commission said.

Western counterintelligence agencies have long suspected that the KGB “salted” the emigres with their agents. One such plant was uncovered in December in Israel when authorities arrested Shabtai Kalmanovich, 46, and alleged that he had spied for 14 years. During that time he had worked briefly for a member of the Israeli Knesset (parliament) and, during a period in which he worked as an international businessman, he reportedly helped in at least one U.S.-Soviet spy trade.

Ogorodnikov Case

In the most celebrated American case involving the KGB and Soviet emigres, Nikolai Ogorodnikov, 55, and his wife Svetlana, 36, were convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage in 1985, along with renegade FBI man Richard W. Miller in Los Angeles. Miller, whose FBI duties consisted of surveillance of the Russian community, was allegedly recruited by the Ogorodnikovs to work as a KGB agent.


Nikolai Ogorodnikov, who said he had changed his name from Wolfson, pleaded guilty at the trial and was sentenced to eight years, but now proclaims his innocence. In an interview in the Federal Correctional Institution in Phoenix, he denied having been recruited by the KGB but admitted spending over 10 years in Soviet prisons on six criminal charges, mostly burglary, before coming to the United States in 1973.

His last arrest there, two years before he emigrated, he said, was on a rape charge trumped up by the KGB because of his contacts with U.S. diplomats. But the charge was dropped in what was a rare case of Soviet justice triumphing over the KGB, Ogorodnikov maintained.

U.S. Atty. Robert C. Bonner, who prosecuted the case, in an interview offered two possible explanations for Ogorodnikov’s ties to the KGB: “He was planted before he left the Soviet Union,” and he might have been given a Jewish identity as a cover. “The FBI indicated that he (Ogorodnikov) was anti-Semitic,” Bonner said.

Or alternatively, Bonner speculated, Ogorodnikov was allowed to emigrate because of his criminal record. Once here, Ogorodnikov had a change of heart and “intensely” wanted to return to the Soviet Union, where his mother still lives, and “had to earn it” by serving the KGB, Bonner suggested.

Ogorodnikov, a slight, intense man who quickly becomes emotional in claiming he has been victimized, volunteered the information during the Phoenix interview that he was not circumcised. This saved him, he said, when he was captured by the Germans during World War II. He said he joined the Soviet army in 1943 when he was 11 years old and served in special commando forces where he was twice wounded.

Unsophisticated Help

Neither of the Ogorodnikovs seemed educated or stable enough for elaborate espionage work, but the Soviet intelligence agency would want a network of relatively unsophisticated helpers in the Los Angeles area, according to Assistant U.S. Atty. Russell Hayman, the co-prosecutor in the case.


“The Soviets don’t have legal spies (those working as diplomats of an embassy or consulate) to service this community,” Hayman said. “They have to rely on illegals or agents they recruit.”

“All criminals in Soviet jails are extremely ripe for KGB recruitment,” said a former Soviet human rights dissident who himself served eight years in prison. “They say, ‘You want out, just sign this paper,’ ” he explained. Once released, the criminal usually becomes an informer inside Soviet society or a potential agent for the KGB if he emigrates.

Israeli counterintelligence officials regularly but quietly invite Soviet emigres to come forward if they have been compromised by the KGB, according to this former dissident. Such admission, he said, guards against future blackmail and also eases the psychological burden of having promised to cooperate with the secret police.

“I think there are many such people in the United States now,” said the former dissident, who now lives in Europe. “Probably few are ever activated (by the KGB). Many of them do not respond, particularly if they do not still have relatives back in the Soviet Union. But they are there.”

The Organized Crime Commission and various federal and local law enforcement agencies said Soviet emigrants engaged in crime here often steal jewelry, furs, electronics equipment and sporting goods, although incidents of drug trafficking, extortion and fraud were also found.

The American Express Co. lost $2.7 million in nine months of 1984 alone in credit card fraud to Russian gangs, the commission reported. A company spokesman declined to provide an up-to-date figure, saying such information is normally not made public.


The Russians are “intelligent, professional criminals” who, having experienced Soviet police and prisons, do not fear U.S. authorities, it reported. Many law enforcement officials confirmed this view, and Ogorodnikov said his Phoenix prison was “a kindergarten” compared to Soviet jails.

New York Gangs

Russian gangs in New York have been linked to the Genovese Mafia family in insurance fraud and drug deals, and with the Colombo family in New York and Pennsylvania conspiracies to evade tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars in gasoline taxes through a series of bogus companies. Michael Franzese, a movie producer with ties to the Mafia who is now serving 10 years for racketeering, was implicated in the case in 1986.

But it appears that the Russian gangs use the Mafia networks to distribute their stolen merchandise--”they are Russian, after all; undisciplined,” said an emigre who has contacts with the Brooklyn gangs.

Various law enforcement officials said that the amount of crime by Russian gangs is not proportionately greater than in other ethnic and racial groups, but it does appear to be expanding in scope--to Manhattan’s diamond district, for example--and is accompanied by more brutality.

Among recent incidents, a Russian gang operating from Brooklyn into northern New Jersey overpowered an off-duty policeman who was serving as a night watchman, shackled him to a radiator and then killed him with a shot in his head.

Another group, caught during a Paramus, N.J., robbery in August, was led by a Soviet emigrant from Kiev, Mikhail Khait, 37, who was quickly bailed out by a Mafia lawyer. Nine days later, after being questioned by the FBI, he was found dead in suspicious circumstances in Brooklyn. Local police suspect he was killed to silence him, although the FBI said he died of a cocaine overdose.


While often sophisticated in their techniques, the Khait gang hit four Paramus stores using the same brute force method: smashing huge holes in the outside walls of buildings which were either being expanded or next to a construction site. “They had enough tools to field a whole crew,” said Paramus Police Chief Joseph J. Delaney.

Gypsies from the Soviet Union have also formed criminal gangs in this country. In fact Khait, although he told police he was Jewish, was identified as a Gypsy by the FBI.

A typical Gypsy operational pattern is to fly to a distant city, “rent cars, make a bunch of hits (burglaries), and send the stuff (stolen goods) home by UPS (United Parcel Service),” according to the Baltimore detective. The Gypsies sometimes use Russian gangs in Brooklyn to fence their merchandise, he added.

Murders associated with organized crime activity occur in Brooklyn periodically. In one case that attracted considerable publicity, Yuri Brokhin, author of “Hustling on Gorky Street,” which dealt with crime in Moscow, was killed with a small-caliber bullet to the back of his head. Police found $15,000 in cash untouched in his apartment.

Honest Emigres

Honest and hard-working Soviet emigres, who form the vast majority of the community, are the main prey of Russian criminals who practice extortion and protection rackets, according to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. But cracking down on these criminals is difficult.

In part this is because the criminals are less concerned with arrest and imprisonment than American criminals. “Some of these guys have known beatings, torture, in the Soviet Union, and our police treat them with kid gloves compared to the Russian cops,” said one district attorney’s aide.


Another reason is that the larger emigre community does not come forward with information against the criminals, the aide added. “When they have swallowed their basic distrust of authorities and complained about a drug dealer or thief,” the aide explained, “we can’t just arrest the guy without proof. It’s not like Russia, but they don’t understand ‘due process of the law’ in our system.

“It’s a classic ethnic phenomenon. Other immigrant groups do the same,” he added, “but when we don’t act on their information, the Russians feel reinforced in their belief that our cops are in league with thieves and so forth. They don’t come forward anymore.”

A Manhattan detective said Russian thieves are moving into his mid-town diamond district now. They tend to be brash when caught, sometimes even funny.

“One complained, when I tried to get his girlfriend to testify against him, that even the KGB didn’t try that,” the detective said with a laugh. Two others arrested on suspicion were found to have sweat pants under their trousers. “It’s my religion,” one claimed. But the pants were full of diamonds emptied from trays while a dealer was distracted.

Part of the reason that Soviet criminals enter the United States freely is that Soviet authorities refuse to provide criminal files on emigres, and U.S. authorities waive the requirement for detailed explanations of arrests in such cases.

Ruth Van Heuven, spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, which issues entry visas, said: “It is not possible for people coming from the Soviet Union to get copies of their police or criminal records (for submission with their applications). The requirement is waived for them” if they come directly from the Soviet Union.


Gun Charge

Ogorodnikov’s application to enter the United States said he was sentenced to four years in jail for failing to return a revolver to authorities. In his interview with The Times, he denied being arrested on those grounds as he enumerated the six times charges were pressed--all burglaries except for the final rape charge.

Through his broken English, he maintained that he personally knew no Russian criminals in Los Angeles, although he knew of them. They frequented Plummer Park, he said, where he once watched a card game in which the stake was $150,000. He also said a major Russian crime figure in Los Angeles named Boris was killed by another criminal, but provided no details.

Los Angeles police said the area has no significant criminal activity associated with Russian gangs.

Ogorodnikov heatedly denied that the KGB helped him or others with criminal records to emigrate. “You will look foolish (if you write of such a theory),” he said. “Jewish people will laugh at you. Nobody told people to go.”

He also said that when he is paroled, perhaps within 18 months, he intends to plead his innocence to congressional committees and the American press, and if he gets no satisfaction, he will “go to Moscow” to argue his case.