Soviet ‘Cotton Mafia’ in Spotlight : Life of Luxury Over, Kin of Brezhnev Goes on Trial
When Yuri M. Churbanov traveled about the Soviet Union, he went in style--private planes, long limousines, fleets of motorcycle police, applauding crowds and banquets befitting an Oriental potentate.
At home, he lived even better. No delicacy, whether fresh salmon from Scotland or golden caviar from the Caspian Sea, was too expensive or too hard for him to get. Wines came from France, Italy, Germany, even Australia and South Africa. His table was laid with the finest silver, the most exquisite china, the best crystal.
In this have-not society, the luxurious furnishings of his Moscow apartment, his country dacha and his seaside villa were, as one government official put it, “simply beyond description--another world.”
But Churbanov, after all, was the first deputy minister of interior, the second-in-command of all the Soviet Union’s police officers and, as such, one of the country’s most powerful men.
He was a three-star general in the Soviet armed forces, a candidate member of the Communist Party’s policy-making Central Committee and a deputy in the national Parliament.
And, not so coincidentally, Churbanov was also the son-in-law of the late President Leonid I. Brezhnev, the general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party. The third husband of Galina Brezhnev, Churbanov had enjoyed a meteoric rise in the Interior Ministry after his 1971 marriage.
However, Churbanov, according to state prosecutors, was also a leading member of one of the Soviet Union’s biggest criminal gangs and one of the most highly placed Soviet officials ever to be charged with corruption.
With the power of his office, which gave him almost unchallengeable authority over the nationwide police network, and the patronage of his father-in-law, Churbanov provided the protection, prosecutors say, for the “cotton Mafia” in Uzbekistan. In this Soviet republic in Central Asia, an estimated $6.5 billion was stolen by government, party and enterprise officials over a decade.
For this protection from police investigators, Churbanov was well paid and lavishly feted, according to the prosecutors, who fought for more than three years for an indictment--finally approved three months ago--against him.
When Churbanov finally goes on trial here today, accused of corruption and abuse of office, he will be charged with receiving the equivalent of $1.1 million in bribes, but prosecutors say that this is all they can document of an amount they believe to be many times that figure.
The charges against Churbanov--for which he could be executed if convicted--and eight senior Interior Ministry officials from Uzbekistan open just the smallest window on the corruption that Soviet officials say became rampant during Brezhnev’s nearly two decades in power.
“Moral decay,” chief prosecutor Alexander V. Sboyev said, summing up not just the career of Churbanov, now 51, but a whole political era.
‘Era of Stagnation’
Favoritism, nepotism and patronage, turning quickly into corruption, increasingly became the glue that held the government and party together in the later years of Brezhnev’s rule, now described officially as “the era of stagnation.”
“Such phenomena as bribery, speculation and theft existed before Brezhnev, but under him they flourished,” Alexander Katusev, the deputy procurator general, said in outlining the government drive under Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the current Soviet leader, against endemic corruption here.
Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, called Churbanov “an example of the ‘stagnation period,’ when a person reached high position not because of his merits but due to his family connections.”
The trial, and the extraordinary publicity given it so far, will underscore Gorbachev’s drive to break with the cronyism, corruption and nepotism now seen as characteristic of the Brezhnev era and, implicitly, of the party for several decades.
The court case, to be heard by the military bench of the Soviet Supreme Court, also appears intended to tell the Kremlin’s conservatives, who flourished under Brezhnev and who still hope for a comeback, that their time has passed and that continued resistance to Gorbachev-era reforms must cease.
Don’t ‘Judge Everything’
But Andrei Makarov, Churbanov’s defense attorney, warned that the trial must not be used to “judge everything negative that took place in our country” during Brezhnev’s long rule from 1964 to his death in 1982.
“Churbanov is indicted for bribe-taking and abuse of office, and if he is found guilty he is to be punished for his own misdeeds,” Makarov said. “Yet the impression arises in our press . . . that under the name of Churbanov they are trying to judge Brezhnev.”
With 110 volumes of evidence against Churbanov and his co-defendants, however, prosecutors are confident of convictions, although the trial will probably take more than two months, and more than 200 witnesses will likely be called to testify.
“They were not blind tools,” Sboyev, the chief prosecutor, told the newspaper Socialist Industry last month. “They committed crimes with open eyes, but imitating their superiors. Indeed, it is striking how the vices of the higher-ups were repeated by their subordinates.”
Protect ‘Cotton Kings’
According to Sboyev, Churbanov confessed after his arrest in February, 1987, to protecting the “cotton kings” of Uzbekistan from prosecution for almost a decade, taking bribes to ensure there was no investigation of their lucrative racket and apparently passing money on to other officials in the central leadership.
In a massive swindle, government and party officials reportedly collaborated with enterprise officials, farm managers and veteran racketeers to cheat the state of hundreds of millions of dollars each year by falsifying the amount of cotton they had grown, adding more than 1 million tons a year to actual output and claiming not only payment from the central government in Moscow but also huge bonuses for above-quota production.
Thousands of people were involved, and the fraud spread from cotton production, itself more than a fifth of the Uzbek economy, to virtually every other sector of agriculture and industry.
The corruption in Uzbekistan did not originate with Churbanov, however, and he has been recently described as more a tool of powerful politicians and criminal bosses than one of the masterminds.
According to detailed accounts published recently in the Soviet press, corruption had begun flourishing in the mid-1960s under Sharaf Rashidov, the region’s party leader for a quarter century, a close Brezhnev ally in national politics and a politician who built an almost-feudal system based on patronage and payment of bribes.
“Just nothing happened in Uzbekistan without ‘grease,’ ” according to an investigative reporter for Socialist Industry. “Almost everything, from the movement of a little finger of a leader, had to be paid for.”
Churbanov, attracted to the easy money and the lavish attention he received in Uzbekistan, soon became the “protector-in-chief” of the whole criminal network, according to prosecutors.
Sboyev, who will prosecute the case against Churbanov, said the charges are only “an aspect, a portion” of much bigger investigations that are continuing into corruption in Uzbekistan as well as into Churbanov’s activities in other areas. The investigation in Uzbekistan began shortly before Rashidov’s death in 1983, after Yuri V. Andropov, who succeeded Brezhnev as the party leader, solved the paradox of ever-increasing cotton harvests and static or declining production of cotton cloth.
Examining satellite photographs, Andropov found that much of the land purportedly planted with cotton was, in fact, desert. And contrary to Uzbek reports, it had never been planted, never irrigated and never even reclaimed, although the state had paid for all of this.
He called Rashidov to Moscow and demanded an explanation, according to Soviet sources, and when he received none, he ordered the Committee for State Security, or KGB, which he had headed, to start an investigation into both the widespread corruption and the apparent police cover-up.
Churbanov’s boss, Nikolai A. Shcholokov, a lifelong friend of Brezhnev, was removed as interior minister almost immediately by Andropov. Churbanov was later transferred to other posts, but he was not arrested until February, 1987.
Ironically, Churbanov and Shcholokov had begun battling for control of the increasingly lucrative Interior Ministry, according to Pravda, the party newspaper. Churbanov was traveling widely, moving his own officials into key positions around the country and ousting Shcholokov loyalists.
“Scores perished while honestly doing their duty,” Pravda said rather enigmatically last week, not explaining whether these officials had lost their jobs or had actually died in the power struggle. “The heads of honest workers rolled.”
The impact on the whole law enforcement system across the country was devastating, Pravda said. “The moral foundations (for enforcing the law) disappeared,” the paper said, “as did the political foundation of the state and of the legal system.”
In late 1984, Shcholokov committed suicide, shooting himself in the head, when investigators were preparing to charge him with bribe-taking, diamond-smuggling and embezzlement as well as with toleration of corruption around the country.
Churbanov, who was trained as a mechanic but later received a university degree in philosophy through a correspondence course, spent the early years of his career moving back and forth between the Komsomol, the Communist youth organization, and the prison administration at the Interior Ministry.
In 1970, shortly after becoming involved with Galina Brezhnev, he rose to be deputy chief of the political department of the Interior Ministry. In April, 1971, they were married.
Churbanov continued to rise rapidly in the ministry and in 1980 was appointed first deputy minister over three other deputies with longer tenure. He received rapid promotions in rank, was elected as a candidate member of the powerful Central Committee and elected a deputy of the Supreme Soviet, or Parliament.
He received the Soviet Union’s state prize for organizing security at the 1980 Olympic Games here, although he did nothing more than sit in a VIP box with other leaders. A short trip to Afghanistan earned him a battle decoration that is rarely given to Soviet officers who have fought there.
Galina Brezhnev had been married twice before, first to a trapeze artist and then to a Jewish circus performer. The second marriage reportedly so upset her father that he had it annulled. When she married Churbanov, who had divorced his first wife in 1964, Brezhnev told friends and even foreign visitors that he felt she had finally settled down.
Churbanov, a noted ladies’ man, had been briefly assigned as Brezhnev’s personal security guard, according to an unofficial account of how they met, and Pravda made clear last week that perhaps his greatest attraction in those years was his sexual prowess.
Later, Brezhnev became bored with the marriage, according to well-informed Soviet sources, and took up with another circus performer, Boris Buryatya, a Gypsy singer and man-about-town, and with the help of Soviet circus officials went on tours abroad as a makeup artist, painting the faces of clowns.
Buryatya’s arrest in early 1982 on diamond-smuggling charges and Brezhnev’s attempt to use the influence of her father and husband to help him is believed by many Muscovites to have started the chain of investigations into the affairs of a number of leading political figures here.
Since her husband’s disgrace, Brezhnev has lived outside Moscow, a virtual prisoner in a country house in an area reserved for the Kremlin elite. In July, she was stripped of special privileges as Brezhnev’s daughter and then accused in one Soviet newspaper of amassing a fortune of her own by smuggling diamonds on her circus tours.
Still married to Churbanov, Brezhnev will testify at his trial, according to defense attorney Makarov, as a “character witness.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for news, features and recommendations from the L.A. Times and beyond in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.