The Russian Connection
Its regional mafias are strong, its nuclear wealth vast. In Russia, the former are vigorously pursuing the latter, and that means trouble
Alexeyev's is an intriguing tale. He grew up in the Sverdlovsk region and, until last month, was its deputy governor and chief representative to the Russian Federation. According to a Sverdlovsk acquaintance, who spoke nervously about him, Alexeyev got his start in Sverdlovsk running a series of video parlors in the late 1980s. Alexeyev, according to this person, employed karate students he had trained to guard his parlors. Russian police sources say Alexeyev also began a career of "basic racketeering" at the time. According to a Russian police colonel, one of Alexeyev's groups did a lot of business with a man named Oleg Korataev, a professional boxer who was murdered in Brooklyn, N.Y., last year. U.S. law enforcement authorities described the hit as an assassination orchestrated by a Russian mafiya; there is no evidence Alexeyev had any involvement.
In Russia, there are two levels of racketeering. The first is inhabited by street thugs--known as "tattoos," for their extensive prison body art. The tattoos are basically low-level muscle who extort payoffs for protection. Alexeyev was above that, according to Russian police sources, operating at a far more profitable level known as "the roof." This level is peopled by traditional crime bosses, along with some of Russia's new entrepreneurs and the bureaucrats of the old regime possessed of connections, strong stomachs and a driving ambition to make the most of new opportunities to get rich quick. Businesses that deal with these groups are brought under the roof. If they cannot afford to develop their own security forces, protection is provided. More important, they may get connections and access to lucrative contracts--all for a hefty cut, of course, typically about 30 percent and sometimes up to 70 percent of profits.
Links to power. With his many connections, Alexeyev soon emerged as one of the more powerful entrepreneurs in Sverdlovsk. "He is organized crime," says a former police officer there. "But you cannot make money in Russia without breaking the law. So I would not call him simply a criminal. He is a businessman who is forced to break the law and who earns money from his connections to power." Others are more cautious, but not solely because Alexeyev has stayed out of jail. "Of course, I cannot call him a criminal," says a senior Russian police official assigned to organized-crime investigations. "The response would hit me between the eyes."
In the early 1990s, Alexeyev made the move to Moscow and established a number of sports clubs and commodity trading firms. In the new Russia, many sports clubs are considered by police and organized-crime experts to be training venues for security thugs and racketeers. Even Russian mafiosi have started to joke openly about the new phenomenon of "organized sport"; in Russian, the phrase rhymes with "organized crime." "The Soviet Union had a huge number of athletes and athletic organizations," says Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences. "Society does not need these people after they leave sports. But mafiya organizations do need them."