In two posh villas outside the small town of Ricany, near Prague, one of the most dreaded mob families in the world savagely murders its terrified victims. The mob’s young enforcers, trained by veterans of the Afghanistan war, are infamous for their extreme brutality. Their quarry, usually businessmen who have balked at extortion demands, are repeatedly stabbed and tortured, then mutilated before they are butchered. The carnage is so hideous that it has scared the daylights out of competing crime groups in the area.
The torture chambers are run by what international police officials call the Red Mafia, a notorious Russian mob family that in only six years has become a nefarious global crime cartel. Based in Budapest, it has key centers in New York, Pennsylvania, Southern California, and as far away as New Zealand.
The enigmatic leader of the Red Mafia is a 52-year-old Ukrainian-born Jew named Semion Mogilevich. He is a shadowy figure known as the “Brainy Don” — he holds an economics degree from the University of Lvov — and until now, he has never been exposed by the media. But the Voice has obtained hundreds of pages of classified FBI and Israeli intelligence documents from August 1996, and these documents — as well as recent interviews with a key criminal associate and with dozens of law enforcement sources here and abroad — describe him as someone who has become a grave threat to the stability of Israel and Eastern Europe.
“He’s the most powerful mobster in the world,” crows Monya Elson, who is listed in classified documents as one of Mogilevich’s closest associates and partners in prostitution and money laundering rings. The Brighton Beachbased Elson, who once led a pack of thugs and killers known as Monya’s Brigada, is currently in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan awaiting trial for three murders and numerous extortions.
In July 1993, after Elson was grievously wounded by rival mobsters in a bloody shoot-out outside his Brooklyn apartment building, Mogilevich spirited him out of the country. Mogilevich then set up his Russian Jewish refugee friend in an alleged massive money-laundering scheme in Fano, Italy, where he was eventually arrested and extradited back to America. Elson, an integral part of the Red Mafia, had been one of the most feared mobsters in Brighton Beach, ground zero for Russian organized crime in America, which has exploded here following perestroika.
“If I tell on Mogilevich, Interpol will give me $20 million,” boasted Elson. “I lived with him. I’m his partner, don’t forget. We are very, very close friends. I don’t mean close, I mean very, very close. He’s my best friend.” Nevertheless, after extensive interviews over the course of the last six months, Elson ultimately confirmed some of the details about Mogilevich contained in the classified FBI and Israeli documents.
Allegations of Mogilevich’s devilish array of criminal activities are extensively detailed in the reports: The FBI and Israeli intelligence assert that he traffics in nuclear materials, drugs, prostitutes, precious gems, and stolen art. His contract hit squads operate in the U.S. and Europe. He controls everything that goes in and out of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, a “smugglers’ paradise,” says Elson. Mogilevich bought a bankrupt airline in a former Central Asian Soviet republic for millions of dollars in cash so he could haul heroin out of the Golden Triangle. Most worrisome to U.S. authorities is Mogilevich’s apparently legal purchase of virtually the entire Hungarian armaments industry, jeopardizing regional security, NATO, and the war against terrorism.
In one typical criminal deal, Mogilevich and two Moscow-based gangsters sold $20 million worth of pilfered Warsaw Pact weapons from East Germany, including ground-to-air missiles and 12 armored troop carriers, according to the classified Israeli and FBI documents. The buyer was Iran, says a top-level U.S. Customs official who requested anonymity.
In another deal, an FBI informant told the bureau that one of Mogilevich’s chief lieutenants in Los Angeles met two Russians from New York City with Genovese crime family ties to broker a scheme to dump American toxic waste in Russia. Mogilevich’s man from L.A. said the Red Mafia would dispose of the toxic waste in the Chernobyl region, “probably through payoffs to the decontamination authorities there,” says a classified FBI report.
Mogilevich is particularly intrigued by art fraud. In early 1993, he reached an agreement with the leaders of the powerful Solntsevskaya crime family in Moscow to invest huge sums of money in a joint venture: acquiring a jewelry business in Moscow and Budapest. The business, according to classified FBI documents, was to serve as a front for the acquisition of jewelry, antiques, and art, which the Solntsevskaya mob had stolen from churches and museums in Russia, including the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The gangsters also robbed the homes of art collectors and even broke into synagogues in Germany and Eastern Europe to steal rare religious books and Torahs.
Mogilevich’s operation, again in collusion with the Solntsevskaya mob, also purchased a large jewelry factory in Budapest. Russian antiques, such as Faberge eggs, are sent to Budapest for “restoration.” Mogilevich’s men ship the genuine Faberge eggs to an unwitting Sotheby’s auction house in London for sale, then send fake Faberge eggs as well as other “restored” objects back to Moscow.
Mogilevich’s early years are murky. Soviet authorities first learned of his criminal activities in the 1970s, when he was a member of the Liubertskaya crime group that operated in the Moscow suburb of the same name. He was involved in petty thefts and counterfeiting.
But Mogilevich made his first millions fleecing fellow Jews. In the mid 1980s, when tens of thousands of Jewish refugees were hurriedly immigrating to Israel and America, Mogilevich made deals to buy their assets — rubles, furniture, and art — cheaply, promising to exchange the goods for fair market value and send refugees the proceeds in “hard” currency. Instead, he sold their valuables and pocketed the considerable profits.
In the 1980s, he established a petroleum import-export company, Arbat International, and registered it in Alderney, one of the Channel Islands, which is known to be a tax haven. One of his partners — with a quarter share of the company — was Vyacheslav Ivankov, the legendary Russian criminal who in March 1992 became Godfather of the Russian mob in America. Ivankov was convicted in 1996 of extorting two Russian-born Wall Street stockbrokers. He now resides in Raybrook, a Federal prison in upstate New York.
In early 1990, Mogilevich fled Moscow, as did many other dons, to avoid the gangland wars that were then roiling the capital. Mogilevich and his top henchmen settled in Israel, where they received Israeli citizenship. He “succeeded in building a bridgehead in Israel” and “developing significant and influential [political] ties,” says an Israeli intelligence report.
Mogilevich is married to a Hungarian national, Katalin Papp. That marriage allowed him to legally emigrate to Budapest, Hungary, in 1991, where he began to build the foundations of his global criminal empire. He bought a string of nightclubs in Prague, Riga, and Kiev — called the “Black and White Clubs” — that has become one of the world’s foremost centers of prostitution. Monya Elson is a partner in the clubs, according to his own admission and classified FBI documents. The Black and White Club in Budapest became the hub of Mogilevich’s operations. He quickly built a highly structured criminal organization, in the mode of a traditional American mafia family. Indeed, many of the organization’s 250 members are his relatives.
To the consternation of international law enforcement officials, Mogilevich began to legally purchase much of Hungary’s arms industry. The legitimate companies he bought include:
These transactions enabled the Mogilevich organization to become a direct owner of the Hungarian armaments industry. In 1994, he purchased a license enabling him to buy and sell weapons. Now a legitimate armaments manufacturer, one of his companies participated in at least one arms exhibition in the U.S., where it displayed mortars modified by Israel. Like mob bosses everywhere, Mogilevich couldn’t sustain his empire without the help of corrupt police and politicians. There is one documented example of a criminal associate of Mogilevich mingling with American politicians. In March 1994, Vahtang Ubiriya, one of Mogilevich’s top lieutenants, was photographed by the FBI at a tony Republican Party fundraiser in Dallas, says an FBI report. Ubiriya, a high-ranking official in the Ukrainian railway administration, has a prior conviction for bribery in the Ukraine.
In Europe and Russia, the “corruption of police and public officials has been part of the Semion Mogilevich Organization’s modus operandi,” says a classified FBI document. “The corruptive influence of the Mogilevich organization apparently extends to the Russian security system. During 1995, two colonels from Department of the Russian Presidential Security Service . . . traveled to Hungary under commercial cover to meet with Mogilevich . . . seeking information for use in the Russian political campaign.” An Israeli associate of Mogilevich met with the two colonels and provided intelligence. Mogilevich also paid off a Russian judge to secure Vyacheslav Ivankov’s early release from a Siberian prison, where he was doing hard time for robbery and torture, according to U.S. court records and classified FBI documents.
On April 28, the German national television network ZDF reported that the BND (the German intelligence agency) had entered into a secret contract with Mogilevich to provide information on the Russian mob. The charges were made by several sources, including Pierre Delilez, a highly regarded Belgium police investigator who specializes in Russian Organized Crime. Because of this deal with the BND, police in Belgium, Germany, and Austria have complained that it is now impossible to investigate the “Brainy Don.” If the television report is accurate, one possible motive for BND’s deal, says a U.S. law enforcement expert on the Russian mob, is that the Germans recently “pulled their people out of Moscow because they didn’t like the level of cooperation they were getting from the Russian authorities on the Russian mob.” Gangsters, said this source, often talk to intelligence agencies about their rivals.
Mogilevich’s main activity in the U.S. appears to be money laundering, says a classified FBI report. He has set up companies in Los Angeles — FNJ Trade Management — and Newton, Pennsylvania — YBM Magnex International — as well as dozens of shell companies, which have received more than $30 million from Arigon, Ltd., the center of Mogilevich’s financial operations.
Last Friday, U.S. Attorney Robert Courtney, head of the organized-crime strike force, led a a joint FBI, IRS, INS, and Customs raid of YBM’s offices in Newton. Cartons of documents were seized, with Canadian and U.S. police citing the company’s alleged ties to Russian organized crime. YBM is publicly traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange, and two days before Friday’s raid, trading in its stock was suspended by Canadian authorities.
The president and CEO of YBM is Jacob Bogatin, a professor of physical metallurgy. In May 1996, he contacted the FBI in Philadelphia to find out why the INS had denied visas to YBM employees arriving from Hungary and the Ukraine. When he was rebuffed, he had intermediaries step forward and pester the FBI. The State Department has banned Mogilevich himself from obtaining a U.S. visa because he’s on the department’s watch list of international organized-crime figures. Nevertheless, he has surreptitiously entered America under aliases and on visitor visas issued in Tel Aviv to visit Elson and Ivankov.
Bogatin admitted during a telephone interview that Mogilevich owns his company. When asked if he knew that numerous law enforcement agencies here and abroad considered Mogilevich to be a leader of one of the most ruthless organized-crime families in recent times, Bogatin replied, “We have an investors relations guy. You want to talk with him about this stuff.” He added that he had read allegations in the Eastern European press that his boss was a Mafia don, but didn’t believe them. YBM vehemently denies that it is connected to Russian organized crime or has engaged in any criminal activities.
Bogatin is no stranger to the mob, however. His brother, David, a top Russian crime figure who once served in North Vietnam for the Soviets in an anti-aircraft unit, is now serving an eight-year term in a New York State prison for a multimillion-dollar gasoline tax fraud scheme. Just prior to trial, he had jumped bail, fleeing to Poland. There he set up the first commercial banks, which moved vast sums of money controlled by Russian wiseguys. (This after handing over his mortgages for five pricey Trump Tower apartments to a Genovese associate. The mortgages were liquidated and the funds were moved through a mafia-controlled bank in Chelsea.) Eventually he was caught and returned to the U.S. In the meantime, he lived like royalty in a five-star Viennese hotel, surrounded by a praetorian guard of 125 Polish parachutists, some of them bedecked in shiny gold uniforms.
Mogilevich has not refrained from associating with known killers in America, prime among them Elson and Ivankov. A confidential informant told the FBI that Vladimir Berkovich, an L.A. resident, is a chief lieutenant in Mogilevich’s organization and has arranged contract killings here, supplying the weapons and spiriting the killers out of the country. The visas, says the report, were obtained through the Palm Terrace restaurant, a watering hole for Russian gangsters, which Berkovich owns. Berkovich told the Voice that he is aware of the government’s charges, and that they are “total bullshit.” Although he has no criminal record in the U.S., Berkovich’s son, Oleg, was convicted in Los Angeles of solicitation to commit murder on October 11, 1989. He was sentenced to four years. Oleg’s business card identified his employer as Magnex, Ltd., a company owned by Mogilevich in Budapest. Oleg was recently arrested in Hungary on unspecified charges but was released.
Oleg’s uncle, the colorful Lazar Berkovich, whose last known address was New York City, arrived in the Big Apple after having survived a shootout with Italian gangsters, says his brother Vladimir. The FBI report claims that Lazar was head of Russian criminal activities in Italy prior to his coming to America to recuperate from his wounds, though Vladimir Bercovich denies that Lazar was ever connected to the Russian mob.
Israeli and U.S. law enforcement sources agree that the Red Mafia, though in existence for a mere six years, has become one of the most formidable Russian organized-crime families in the world. Strongest in the Ukraine, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the U.S., Mogilevich has increased his strength by forging ties with other powerful Russian mob groups as well as with the Italian Camorra. His reported ties to the German BND and expolice officers in Hungary keep him informed of police efforts to penetrate his organization. “He also ingratiates himself with the police by providing information on other [Russian crime] groups’ activities, thus appearing to be a cooperative good citizen,” says a classified FBI report. This, along with his strong leadership qualities, his acute financial skills, his talented and highly educated associates, and his use of cutting-edge technology, has so far made the “Brainy Don” impervious to prosecution. ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 26, 1998