3 gangs battle for control of hard-bitten Russian city

THE BALTIMORE SUN

IZHEVSK, Russia -- The guns of October had barely quieted in Moscow when another ferocious and brazen battle broke out on the streets of Izhevsk.

It was not so much a political fight, as in Moscow, but nevertheless it was a fight for supremacy that was faithful to the spirit of this unsentimental and hard-bitten city: It was a battle for control of Izhevsk's flourishing criminal underworld.

And because of the audacity of those who took part it carved out a new chapter in the annals of Russian organized crime.

On the night of Oct. 6, foot soldiers from three rival gangs spread out across the city. They firebombed stores and offices; they smashed shop windows; they overturned kiosks and set them afire, and they torched 40 cars.

Police arrested 74 men that night, although they later released all but six. No bodies were found, but one prominent gang member disappeared, and now the leaders of two rival mobs are sitting in jail, one awaiting possible murder charges.

That was just the opening battle, for no single gang emerged victorious. More is sure to come.

The fight here illustrates the power and daring of criminal mobs in today's Russia. Nationally, the Interior Ministry calculates there are about 3,000 criminal gangs currently at work, loosely grouped into 150 larger organizations. And as the potential profits go up, and the territory gets staked out, there has been a marked increase in ruthlessness, officials say.

Izhevsk has been the scene of such open turmoil because, unlike other places, no single gang has established control over this city.

A single event appears to have touched off the nighttime battle of Izhevsk: the murder of a witty and likable gynecologist named Vyacheslav Klein. Over the years, Dr. Klein had delivered thousands of babies, but he also ran a breast-enlargement clinic, controlled several casinos, and had a lock on vodka street sales here. At 35 he was a successful businessman, and he had apparently decided it was time to rise above his criminal past.

But that past was not so forgiving, and on Aug. 29 he was gunned down in the entryway to his apartment house. Dr. Klein's associate was killed the next day, and that left his small empire ripe for taking.

Of the three gangs that began circling for the kill, the smallest came from Izhevsk's central market. Its chief is Igor Matveyenko, a former butcher known as "Sirota," or "The Orphan."

Before his arrest, "The Orphan" used to delight in marshaling his men in a sort of roll-call every morning at 9. These were not the market vendors; they were the market enforcers. The roll-call was deliberately ostentatious. The police looked on from a distance.

Then there is the Blue Tattoo Gang. Running the roughest criminal trades, this is a group of former convicts who have muscled in on prostitution, car sales and now alcohol. Their leader, Eldar Kasimov, is described by those who know him as impulsive and unpredictable.

"You could say he's crazy," said one rival.

At the top of the social scale comes the Karate Gang, led by Nikolai Gorokhov, a 36-year-old former Soviet karate champion who later ran martial-arts schools for the KGB.

Provides protection

Mr. Gorokhov's main line of work is in offering protection to legitimate and semi-legitimate businesses. It works like this: Any business owner who seems to be making too much money gets a call from the Karate Gang. They suggest that he share his receipts with them. The alternative is usually not spelled out, but no one has to ask.

Mr. Gorokhov was a sometime ally of Dr. Klein's. A police official described him as "arrogant, decisive, not stupid, but subject to his emotions."

"He can be conniving in some cases," the official said. "Well, a criminal leader should be like that."

One businessman who conscientiously pays his protection money to Mr. Gorokhov said, "He follows certain rules of the game. Our glorious Blue Tattoos make up their own rules, and change them as they go along.

"Look, if we could follow the law it would be great. But given these circumstances, we can't, and in this case it's better to go with the lesser evil."

This businessman, like virtually everyone interviewed for this article, insisted on anonymity.

All three gangs have a hand in the drug trade, and -- because this is Izhevsk -- in gun-running.

Izhevsk, halfway between the Volga River and the Ural Mountains, is the small-arms capital of Russia. A gray, unwelcoming place, this city of 600,000 makes hunting rifles, handguns and -- most famously -- the AK-47, the Kalashnikov automatic assault rifle.

That's the weapon of choice for revolutionaries, thugs and mayhem artists around the world, and many of them deal directly with the mobsters of Izhevsk.

The bloody Caucasus mountain region has become a particularly lucrative outlet for those willing and able to get around Russia's ban on gun sales. That does not seem to be a very difficult task here, for few doubt that corruption extends far up into the local government.

For evidence, people point to last summer's revelation that $9 million had turned up missing from a state oil enterprise's account, only to be traced later to a foreign bank.

Police say that, with or without the criminal gangs, millions of dollars worth of nickel, cobalt, aluminum and copper is being siphoned off from state enterprises for sale abroad at enormous profits.

But protection and extortion of private businesses is the stronghold of the mobs.

They fastened their grip about three years ago, when anyone wanting to take a stab at business faced an uncertain and difficult path. Under Soviet law, doing any kind of business was of dubious legality or else forbidden outright.

Someone like Dr. Klein, who saw an opportunity to make money, had to deal with mobsters if he hoped to get around the law.

Hard to get out

Today, it is possible to be a businessman without being a criminal. But once in, as Dr. Klein discovered, it's hard to get out.

There were signals, to be sure, that violence comes with the territory. Two years back, Viktor, the younger brother of Karate Gang leader Nikolai Gorokhov, was spotted being stuffed into the trunk of a small car. Police intercepted it at a nearby riverbank, where a hole had already been cut in the ice to receive him. He survived.

In January, a Karate Gang bully named Alexander Petrov, a former KGB prison guard, learned the hard way that he had made too many enemies. Someone shot him dead.

Later, Dr. Klein apparently decided to cut his ties to the underworld. "Klein was the smartest," said a police official. "Very unusual. Educated, cultured. Perfect chess player. Very rational. Very pleasant to speak with."

He was apparently looking into some bigger business deals. He was also, some here say, showing an unhealthy interest in the mystery of the missing $9 million in oil money, and maybe asking too many questions.

He was not overly cautious, and he was murdered at a moment when none of his bodyguards was nearby.

Hundreds at funeral

Hundreds came to Dr. Klein's funeral, mostly women who had been his patients. All the kiosks in town closed that day in his memory.

The stage was set for a vendetta.

In early October a KGB officer reportedly called several business owners and warned them that trouble was brewing, that they had better lock away anything of value.

At 3:30 p.m. on Oct. 6 Mr. Gorokhov's bodyguards found a bomb attached to the Karate Gang leader's car. It was disarmed. But as darkness fell the battle began.

At 8:30 p.m. police received a report that Talgat Khusnutdinov, a lieutenant in the Blue Tattoo Gang, was missing. (He has never been found.)

Then, for the next eight hours, stores were wrecked, offices were firebombed, cars and kiosks were destroyed and burned.

Among the targets was Dr. Klein's clinic, at 22 Lenin St. Dozens of people were beaten up or injured by the fires.

But the result was a standoff. The next day Nikolai Gorokhov was arrested; he may be charged with Mr. Khusnutdinov's murder.

He hired as his defense attorney the wife of the deputy regional prosecutor, a man who formerly was in charge of prosecuting KGB cases.

This led to widespread speculation that something fishy is up -- and no one has dared make a move here until it is clear whether Mr. Gorokhov will be coming out of custody.

In an office decorated with a bearskin on the wall and featuring a cigarette lighter disguised as a hand grenade, his brother Viktor was cryptic at best.

"It's an enormous mess," he said, "and I can't even say how high it goes."

'The Orphan' arrested

Mr. Matveyenko, "The Orphan," was arrested a few days later by a nervous squad of riot police, who surrounded his apartment house and called on him through bullhorns to surrender.

As for the missing Mr. Khusnutdinov -- known as the "Director of the One-eleven," because he controlled a bus stop on that line where vodka sales are brisk -- rival mobsters from all over Izhevsk are looking for him.

His enemies are hoping to find him alive, so they can clear their boss. His friends are hoping to find him, too -- but preferably dead.

If Mr. Gorokhov is put away for murder, everyone assumes the Blue Tattoo gang will waste little time making their move. "Then we'll have a real war," one businessman said.

But if Mr. Gorokhov is released, it appears he may try to assume the mantle of the unfairly persecuted businessman, and take his whole operation toward the realm of legitimacy.

It was a move that didn't work for Dr. Vyacheslav Klein, the ambitious gynecologist. Maybe a karate champ with a background in the KGB can do better.

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