By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.
He’s old and fat with a face like a pickled walnut. A name that most will never register. Just one of the mass of humanity.
It’s claimed he’s worth north of 10 billion dollars.
The FBI referred to him as “The Most dangerous Mobster in the World.”1
His nickname is Seva, a word of Slavic origin which translates as “one who rules all.”
Not unlike Keyser Soze, he seemed a nobody in a province filled with villains. And yet digging deep, he was more, a lot more. The leading thumb in a knuckle of gangsters that operated across the world.
The FBI wanted poster on him lists a cornucopia of criminal acts - “Fraud by Wire; RICO Conspiracy; Mail Fraud; Money Laundering Conspiracy; Money Laundering; Aiding and Abetting; Securities Fraud; Filing False Registration With the SEC; False Filings With the SEC; Falsification of Books and Records” - yet none of these, bad as they may be, would show how most of us interpenetrate danger.
The American government was after him because of a massive multi-million dollar scam he and his partners pulled off involving a Canadian registered company, and lots of dodgy dealing in the USA centered around a company listed as YBM in Pennsylvania and Pratecs Technologies Inc. incorporated in Alberta.
North of $350 million went missing in a massive and complicated fraud that stretched over two years and two continents.
Born in Kyiv, Ukraine in 1946, Semion Mogilevich would use multiple aliases as he travelled through his life. He lives for a time in Hungary, studies economics at a university in Ukraine. Gets a degree in economics, decides his talents lie in fields of grey, not green.
By his mid-twenties he had become part of the Lyubertskaya crime clan, a Russian-based mob which trafficked drugs between Asia and Europe into America. It was during this period in the 1970s that Russian law enforcement first realized his presence, investigating him for petty theft and counterfeiting. From there, he moved into the Solntsevskaya Bratva, a Russian organized crime syndicate that emerged following the fall of the Soviet Union. One of dozens that sprung up. One of hundreds or more. They came to be known as the Russian, sometimes the red, mafiya.
In 1993, the Russian Internal Affairs Ministry claimed over 5,000 criminal groups were operating in Russia, but only about 300 had a recognizable makeup.2
- READ: Real “Lord of War” back from the shadows as pawn in international prisoner swap between US and Russia
Solntsevskaya, the brotherhood, grew to become one of the largest gangs in the world, an organization with criminal activities including extortion, drug trafficking, car theft, stolen art, money laundering, contract killings, arms dealing, human trafficking, trading nuclear material, prostitution, and oil deals.3
It was an octopus of an organization with tentacles reaching everywhere, sucking onto people that counted. Run by a man who was as faceless as the crowds thronging the streets of any major city. Roger Kint claimed, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” 4
Mogilevich made his financial bones, fleecing fellow Jews, buying up assets as they immigrated to America and Israel, but forgetting to forward their share after sale, as he had promised. He also created an import-export company with Vyacheslav Ivankov, who in the early 1990s became the Godfather of the Russian Mafia in New York.
In early 1990 Mogilevich and his wife, Katalin Papp, moved to Israel, where they both received citizenship, before returning to her country of birth, settling in Budapest. From here, his real empire building began, through a string of nightclubs in eastern Europe in partnership with another Russian mobster, Monya Elson, who following a stint in an Israel prison for drug trafficking, moved to America, becoming part of the Brighton Beach arm of the Russian Mafia.
It’s possible, Elson actually suggested the sobriquet regarding Mogilevich’s ranking in the world of criminality, according to an informant to his FBI handler.5
In 1996, the FBI claimed Seva’s reach extended across Central Europe, including Prague, the Czech Republic; Vienna, Austria, the United States, Ukraine, United Kingdom, France, Slovakia, and Israel. And Russia of course. At one stage, he controlled over one hundred companies with bank accounts in twenty-seven different countries, creating a flood rather than a flow of cash.
There is an old saying in Russia, “The house is burning and the clock is ticking,” meaning make money off every minute available.6
By the turn of the twenty-first century, Solntsevskaya Bratva was the greatest and most powerful criminal cartel in the world. Top of the organized crime league. And the dumpy little guy from Ukraine was running it. His friends called him “The Brainy Don,” and compared to most of the gangsters he worked with, he was.
FBI Agent Peter Kowenhovn confirmed in an interview that Semion Mogilevich, its “boss of bosses,” is a strategic threat, and a man who “can, with a telephone call or order, affect the global economy.”7
The U.S. Government was worried about him as not only a risk to the financial security of the world but also because of his access to a huge stockpile of weapons and even fissionable material gained as the Soviet Union fell to pieces. What makes him and his mob of particular concern is that they are not simply criminals on the hunt, but an organization with links to oligarchs, big business and the government itself. Where the Russian Mafia ends and the state begins is a conundrum of dangerously toxic levels. A symbiotic relationship that almost certainly maintains its continuity to this day.
The little man from Ukraine would also become a person of special interest to the law in America when his path seemed to cross with that of a man called Donald Trump. “The Donald” as he became known to the world once he traversed the gulf between dodgy real estate investor to the 45th President of the United States of America.
“The FBI apparently knew, directly or indirectly, based upon available facts, that prior to Election Day, in January 2017, Trump and his campaign had personal and business dealings with certain individuals and entities linked to criminal elements-including reputed Russian gangsters-connected to Vladimir Putin.” ibid,2
There is a link between Trump and Putin, and a link between Putin and Mogilevich. A defector from Russia’s Federal Security Service, formerly the KGB, Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned while living in England, claimed before he died in November 2006 that Mogilevich had been a close friend of Vladimir Putin since 1990.
Trump’s relationships to Russia are tingling but tantalizingly arcane, both his business and political ones, and his alleged connection to President Putin filled the Fourth Estate with endless speculation for the years of his presidency. Trump revealed highly classified information about Islamic State militants to Russian officials during a meeting in May 2017 according to a report by Associated Press. The theory of probability in the field of mathematics perhaps suggests that there was more than just a chance at play here between these two heads of states.
Many dubious people moved in and out of Trump Tower, the glitzy apartment building in Manhattan where Trump had based his business using the penthouse as one of his homes, up to his election as president. Some of these people rented, some bought in. Almost certainly, they would cross the path of the man who dominated the building that carried his name.
One of these was Vyacheslav “Yaponchik” Ivankov (right).
Released from a Siberian prison, in 1991, the man who was known as “The Little Japanese,” had been arrested and imprisoned for a variety of crimes including robbery and drug trafficking. His place in the Russian mob varies according to source from killer to boss. His early release from prison reportedly resulted from the intervention of a powerful politician and the bribery of a judge on the Russian Supreme Court.8
It may have been the bribe came via Mogilevich. It wouldn’t be the first, or last, time the little man used money to make things happen. To make more money.
Ivankov moved to the USA in March, 1992, claiming to be an entrepreneur working in the movie industry. How a habitual criminal from Russia got a visa for entrance into America has never been explained. Some sources claim he became head of the Russian mob, based in Brooklyn, others that he was merely a vor, literately a thief, or sometimes referred to as thief-in-law. The equivalent of a made man in the Italian-American Cosa Nostra.
And lived in Trump Tower. And ran the Russian Mob, which, since the 1970s, has historically been based in Brighton Beach, on Coney Island in Brooklyn.
Arrested by the FBI and charged for extortion, involving a Wall Street investment firm, he went to prison and was released and deported back to Moscow in 2004. A sniper shot him dead as he left a restaurant in Moscow in July 2009.9
Mogilevich was also close to Robert Maxwell, the dodgy British politician, publisher and financier whose mysterious death in November 1991, has never yet been fully explained. And the Russian mob boss was also connected to Ghislaine, Maxwell’s daughter, currently serving a twenty-year-sentence in America, for sex offences linked to Jeffrey Epstein, a sexual predator and international financier coupled in his own remarkable convoluted life to the Russian gangster and money. Always the money.
It is indeed a murky tale that is woven around Mogilevich involving deception and intrigue on a prodigious scale. More twists and turns than Lombard Street in San Francisco and degrees of separation that make Kevin Bacon’s seem chump change.
According to an article in The Village Voice, Mogilevich (photo below) developed his dominant position in Russia’s organized crime through cooperation with other criminal cartels in the country and established connections with the Italian Camorra. Covering both ends against the middle, he also kept the police at bay in Moscow by providing them with information on other Russian crime groups. His leadership qualities, sharp money skills and use of developing information technology, helped to generate his power and status within international organized crime.”10
Author Craig Unger fingered it in perfect phrase when he wrote, “He mastered a skill that was deeply coveted by the most formidable gangsters on the planet: He took dirty money and made it clean.”11
Russia and its levels of crime were self-evident to someone who practiced law and worked at the Institute of Soviet Law in the Ministry of Justice as early as 1982. Konstantin Simis referred to the U.S.S.R. as the ‘‘corrupt society” and claimed then that both “...the Soviet state and society alike were rotten with corruption from top to bottom.”12
Boris Yeltsin the president of Russia, himself sounded the alarm about the rise and danger of men like Mogilevich (right): “The world has come to consider Russia as a powerful bastion of the mobs,” he declared in February 1993, attending a national conference on organized crime. “We are surpassing countries, like Italy, that have traditionally been in the front lines. There are criminal structures literally corroding our country from top to bottom. Organized crime has become a direct threat to Russia’s strategic interests and national security.”
A year later, in April 1994, the Chairman of the Russian Duma (Russian assembly with advisory or legislative functions) Committee on Security, Viktor Ilyukhin, reportedly stated that the current Yeltsin government stands a good chance of becoming a ‘criminal state’ in relation to the close ties between organized crime and institutionalized corruption.13
No one, it seems, was more involved in all of this than Seva.
Following an arrest on his return to Moscow, for tax evasion in 2008, his case was closed the following year. The Russian interior ministry stated that they released him because the charges against him “are not of a particularly grave nature.”14
Apparently retired from his long, and nefarious career, he lives somewhere in or near Russia’s biggest city. Just down the road, his friend, Putin the president, is waging what could well be an endless war in the county where Mogilevich was born and grew up. History remembers not only what we did, but jests with us often, on why we did it.
In the search for meaning in an often meaningless world, the only certainty is what we don’t know. Without access to his police or state-security records, it’s hard to evaluate how big or bad he truly was.
Everything written about him over the past thirty years points towards it being mostly bad.
If ever a man “woke up in the morning with a dark moon in his eye,” it was Semion Mogilevich.15
His departure from center-stage in a seemingly endless drama of crime, raises an interesting question.
If he is no longer the most dangerous mobster in the world, who is?
- Although this reference appears in many articles and stories, it’s hard to validate by time and spokesperson. The quotation may be attributable to Monya Elson, a criminal Russian import who acted for a time as the Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, commander in the field during a messy and dangerous period before Ivankov assumed control of the area for the Russian gang.
- Daily Record. 17 September 2008.
- The Usual Suspects. 1995 film.
- Blumenthal, Ralph and Bohlen, Celestine. Soviet Emigre Mob Outgrows Brooklyn. NY Times, 4/7/1989.
- Freidman, Robert I. Organiizatiya. NY Magazine 7/11/1994.
- Why FBI Can’t Tell All on Trump, Russia – WhoWhatWhy.htm 05/17/17.
- https://www.rferl.org›a › russia-yaponchik-killing-sentences › 31607182.html
- Freidman, Robert I. The Most Dangerous Mobster in the World. Village Voice, May 26 1998.
- Unger, Craig. House of Trump, House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian Mafia. Dutton, 2018.
- Simis, Konstatin. U.S.S.R.: The Corrupt Society. Simon and Schuster, 1982.
- DiPaoloa, Peter Daniel, The Criminal Time Bomb. Indiana Journal of Global Studies, 1996.
- Russia frees crime boss wanted by U.S., Reuters.July 27, 2009.
- Alabama 3. Copyright of Rob Spragg, Jake Black, Simon Edwards and Piers Mars.
The haunting theme music for the television series, The Sopranos, a dark and brooding story of the other Mafia in New Jersey, has opening lyrics on how a “man woke up this morning with a dark moon in his eye.” Although the composers based their song on a domestic murder in England in the 1980s, Semion Mogilevich could easily have fit the bill as that man.
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