U.S. prison due to free Russian mob boss

MOSCOW — MOSCOW - The man once described by American prosecutors as the chief of the Russian mob in the United States will walk out of a Pennsylvania prison in a week and head home after almost a decade behind bars.

What happens next will be a test of how far Russia has come since the early 1990s, when organized crime bosses controlled much of the economy. It could also show the strength, or limits, of the links between U.S. and Russian law enforcement agencies forged after the Sept. 11 attacks.


Vyacheslav K. Ivankov - an ethnic Russian known as "Yaponchik" or "Little Japanese" because of an Asian cast to his features - is scheduled to be released July 14 from the federal penitentiary in Allenwood. Authorities expect to put him on a plane back to his hometown, Moscow, which he left 12 years ago.

His return is widely anticipated here, where one authority on Russia's elites has called the steely former acrobat one of the five most influential figures in Russian organized crime and "the major ideologist of the criminal world."


Ivankov, whose shoulders bear tattooed stars applied in a Siberian prison, is described by police officials and journalists as a vor-e-zakon, or thief-in-law, a crime lord commanding a small army of associates inside and outside of prison.

Since the Soviet era these criminal kingpins, elected by their peers, have traditionally settled disputes, divvied up loot and enforced the underworld's ruthless code of conduct.

A senior U.S. law enforcement official working in Moscow, speaking on condition that he not be identified, said Ivankov has threatened the lives of FBI agents and Russian police.

Earlier this year, Ivankov's term at Allenwood was extended by several months because of an alleged fight with another inmate. "His behavior in prison combined with his clearly unrehabilitated posture does give us cause for concern," the U.S. official said.

Ivankov is wanted for questioning here in connection with the killing of a Turkish man during a quarrel in a Moscow restaurant in the early 1990s. But Ivankov's lawyer here, Aleksandr Dobrovinsky, said authorities don't have enough evidence to charge his client. One of the two key witnesses in the case has returned to Turkey, the lawyer said, and the other has died.

Whatever Ivankov did in the past, Dobrovinsky said in an interview, his client has changed. In prison, he read Greek philosophy and talked about fishing with his grandchildren.

"He's an old man, and he spent about 30 years in prison," the attorney said. "I think he wants to retire and go somewhere in the countryside and live the rest of his life in peace."

Russia has changed as well. "It's absolutely not the same as it used to be in the 1990s, during what they called 'romantic capitalism,'" Dobrovinsky said, referring to the rise of criminal gangs here after the collapse of Soviet power.


A spokesman for the Russian Interior Ministry's Department of Organized Crime confirmed that investigators are trying to build a case against Ivankov in the restaurant killing.

"I can say only one thing: that it is quite possible that Yaponchik, when he comes to Russia, will be arrested," said Lt. Col. Oleg Elnikov. "But this is only possible if prosecutors find additional evidence of his guilt."

Even as a child, Ivankov was said to be fearless. A friend once told a reporter that Ivankov had run around Moscow tearing down posters of Stalin, a crime then punishable by a long term in the gulag.

At times courtly, Ivankov gained a reputation for a quick temper. He was first arrested in 1966 and convicted of assaulting an acquaintance in a Moscow bar. After his first brief spell in prison, he rose through the ranks of the criminal underworld. He became the protege of Gennadi Korkov, a powerful criminal boss known as "Mongol," according to Aleksei Mukhin of the Moscow Center for Political Information, an authority on Russian elites.

According to press accounts, Ivankov was formally elected a vor-e-zakon by other convicts during a stay in Moscow's dank Butyrskaya prison in 1978.

Convicted of leading a gang of armed robbers who disguised themselves as police in 1982, Ivankov spent nine years in a Siberian prison. Released during the last days of the Soviet empire, he was flown back to Moscow on a chartered plane and welcomed home with a lavish party at the Metropol Hotel, across the street from the Bolshoi Theater.


"Yaponchik inherited Mongol's gang, his power," said Mukhin. "But he didn't have enough time to develop his business in Russia." Instead, he fled after the restaurant slaying.

Law enforcement officials say Ivankov entered the United States in late 1991 or 1992 using a false passport. He settled in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach, a haven for Russian emigres, and allegedly began welding scattered criminal groups into a single organization.

The New York Daily News, in a 1997 account of the Ivankov case, said Yaponchik was asked to help recover $2.7 million that disappeared from a Russian bank. The money had found its way into a small Wall Street investment firm run by two Russian-born financiers.

Ivankov sent word that he wanted to meet with the bankers, who went into hiding. A short time later, the father of one of the bankers was fatally beaten in a Moscow metro station, according to the Daily News account.

The terrified bankers contacted Ivankov and alerted the FBI, which set up surveillance. In talks with an associate of Ivankov at a New Jersey restaurant, the pair allegedly agreed to pay $3.5 million protection money. At a later meeting, Ivankov allegedly sealed the deal.

Ivankov was arrested a few days later. As he was led from FBI headquarters in Manhattan, he reportedly spat and kicked at photographers.


"We're telling them that things are different here," James Kallstrom, assistant director of the FBI's New York office, told the Washington Post. "We're not going to put up with them and they are not going to be able to pay their way out of trouble like Russia in the old days."

Ivankov and three co-defendants were convicted of extortion in July 1996 in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. Ivankov was sentenced to 9 1/2 years in prison.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, Russian and U.S. law enforcement officials say, they have been sharing intelligence and closely cooperating on terrorism investigations. Most of these efforts are focused on tracking terrorism suspects and trying to stanch the flow of weapons into the hands of Islamic extremists.

But the Kremlin and the White House also appear to be cooperating more closely on the sensitive question of fugitives in criminal cases.

A spokesman for the Russian Interior Ministry said in June that there were about 270 criminal suspects wanted in Russia and living in the United States. Some are suspected of engaging in money-laundering schemes that made possible the transfer of billions of state assets out of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Western police agencies, meanwhile, say there are about a half-dozen high-profile fugitives who spend all or part of their time in Russia, including Simeon Mogilevich, a reputed crime boss wanted by Pennsylvania authorities for allegedly bilking hundreds of millions from investors.


But there is no extradition treaty between Russia and the United States. Russian authorities say that if Mogilevich and other fugitives are living here, they don't know about it.

U.S. courts generally have been reluctant to send Russian citizens home because of the Russian criminal justice system's reputation for corruption.

Until recently, experts say, Russian law enforcement officials made little effort to get hold of suspects living abroad - perhaps reflecting ambivalence on the part of the Kremlin.

"In general, the law-enforcing bodies don't work on their own," Mukhin said. "They act on directions coming from the top."

But in recent months, the White House has sought to deport two fugitives in cases with strong political overtones.

In May, a federal judge in Boston granted asylum to Ilyas Akhmadov, former foreign minister of the Chechen separatist government, who has lived in exile since Russia launched its war against Chechen rebels.


Akhmadov has repeatedly denounced terrorism and called for a negotiated settlement. But two days after the asylum ruling, the Department of Homeland Security sought to deport Akhmadov to Russia, calling him a terrorist. Akhmadov remains in the United States pending an appeal.

U.S. immigration officials tried in December to deport Aleksandre Konanykhine, charged with embezzling millions from a Moscow bank in the early 1990s. Konanykhine was a business associate of Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, former head of Yukos Oil, now on trial on charges of fraud and tax evasion.

Konanykhine has said the Kremlin wanted him to testify against his former partner.

A federal judge blocked Konanykhine's deportation minutes before he was to be put on a plane. And a federal panel later sent his immigration case back to square one, guaranteeing that he will remain in the United States for years.

Despite this uneven history of cooperation on criminal matters, U.S. law enforcement officials said privately that they expect Russian authorities to arrest Ivankov when he returns.

Mukhin agreed: "He will be charged with murder."