mafia power play
YAPONCHIK...From Russian Mafia in America by James O. Finckenauer and Elin J. Waring.  Copyright 1998 by North Eastern University Press. Reprinted with permission
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Vyacheslav Ivankov, nicknamed Yaponchik ("Little Japanese"), was, from shortly after his arrival in the United States in 1992 until his arrest by the FBI in 1995, a mysterious and even mythical figure. The speculations tossed around about him created an image of a man who was called "the father of extortion" and the Soviet Union's "most influential vor." He was the "leading crime boss of the Russian Far East" and was reported in the largest Russian language newspaper in New York City to be the "Red godfather" sent to New York by his fellow vory to organize and control Russian criminal activities there. U.S. authorities, especially the Federal Bureau of Investigation, certainly seemed to believe and acted as if Ivankov were a major crime boss. Who is this man Ivankov, also known as Yaponchik? What was he doing here? And was he really the Russian crime boss? The Ivankov/Yaponchik case may be the quintessential illustration of how and why a mafia is created.

Background

Yaponchik was allegedly born in the Soviet Republic of Georgia and grew up in Moscow. He was a champion amateur wrestler in his youth who first went to jail after a bar fight in which (according to his Moscow lawyer) he was defending the honor of a woman. After his release, he began to climb up the Soviet crime ladder--like so many others--by dealing stolen goods on the black market.

According to Russian law enforcement authorities. Yaponchik formed a criminal organization (called Solntsevskaya) in approximately 1980. Among its activities, this group used false police documents to search the homes of wealthy individuals and steal money and other valuables. In 1982 Yaponchik was caught and convicted for robbery, possession of firearms, forgery, and drug trafficking. He was sentenced to fourteen years in prison and during his imprisonment (he served ten years) was supposedly initiated as a vor v zakone.

According to Yaponchik himself, his prison activities during this period antagonized the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, which subsequently conspired with the FBI against him. In a 1995 interview with a Moscow correspondent, Yaponchik said that the Ministry could not forgive his efforts to reform the Soviet prison system while he was locked up in Siberia--efforts that were in support of his lifelong resistance to communism. The FBI, he says, was taken in by the criminal authorities who run the criminal state that was Soviet Russia.

That Vyacheslav Ivankov might not be just any ordinary Russian criminal could be surmised form his supposed acquaintance with Yuri Churbanov, the Brezhnev son-in-law who was involved in the Uzbek cotton scandal. His early release from prison in 1991 reportedly resulted from the intervention of a powerful politician and the bribery of a judge on the Russian Supreme Court.

Activities in the United States

Yaponchik came to the United States in March 1992 with a regular business visa indicating he would be working in the movie industry. How was a man with a felony conviction, ten years in prison, and a reputation as one of the most powerful criminals in Russia able to readily receive a visa to come to the United States? U.S. Immigration and Naturalization officials told us that immigration officials in Moscow were overwhelmed and had neither the time nor resources to investigate the criminal backgrounds of all visa applicants. U.S. officials had to depend on both inept and corrupt Russian authorities for this background information.

The real reason for Yaponchik's being here is open to some dispute. The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs advised the FBI in January 1993 that Yaponchik had come to the United States to "manage and control ROC [Russian Organized Crime] activities in this country." Handelman says, however, that his American police sources initially denied that they had received any such warning. Nonetheless, this advice was ultimately taken to heart by the FBI. Alexander Grant, news editor for "Noovoye Russkoye Slovo," told us in 1994 that Yaponchik was indeed the highest-ranking Russian criminal in the United States but that he was "not criminally active here." Grant said that Yaponchik had to get out of Russia because "it became too dangerous for him there--dangerous because of the new criminal entrepreneurs who don't respect the likes of Yaponchik."

Whatever his original reason for coming, Yaponchik was indeed criminally active after he arrived in the United States, but, as with so much else about him, the scope of his criminal activity is open to controversy. One view is that "Ivankov's New York branch of the Solntsevskaya gang had about 100 members and was recognized on the street as the premier Russian crime group in Brooklyn" and, further, that Ivankov's was the strongest of the Russian organized crime groups in this country. Similarly relying on FBI sources, Sterling concluded that "[m]uch as Lucky Luciano did with the American mafia sixty-odd years ago, Yaponchik is turning an assortment of unruly and loosely articulated Russian gangs on American soil into a modern, nationwide crime corporation." If there is any evidence to support any such assessment, however, it is not apparent.

When he was arrested by the FBI in June 1995, Yaponchik was charged with supervising the extortion of several million dollars form an investment advisory firm run by two Russian businessmen. He and three co-defendants were convicted of this extortion in July 1996. On the face of it, there was nothing particularly sophisticated about the crime. In fact, one is led to wonder why, if Yaponchik was indeed the boss of a large criminal organization and the most powerful Russian mobster in the United States, he was directly involved in arranging and negotiation with the extortion victims. Organized crime bosses are usually insulated from this sort of direct involvement. Further, it was alleged in the FBI's arrest complaint that the murder in Moscow of the father of one of the victims was part of the threat used to further the extortion. Yet in a telephone conversation dealing with this murder--a conversation that was a part of the arrest complaint--Ivankov, who was supposedly masterminding the scheme, seems ignorant of the murder. Finally, if Yaponchik were the new Lucky Luciano, where were the other charges that one might expect could have been derived from his over two years of high-level criminal activity before the particular extortion began in November 1994?



Was Yaponchik a Russian Mafia Chieftain?

Ivankov is clearly a serious criminal. Information from Russian authorities, his prison experience, and even his tattoos all suggest that he is a vor. He probably is the toughest Russian criminal in the United States, but it is doubtful that he is or was the head of a major criminal organization or a mafia boss. There is no evidence that he attempted to gain monopoly control over any criminal activities or that he systematically used violence or corruption. On the basis of this single crime, it is difficult to assess the economic, physical, psychological, and societal harm caused by his offenses. The description of the crime itself, however, suggests that it was a rather blundering effort. Finally, returning to one of our mafia criteria of organizational capacity for harm, Yaponchik was said to have had only a loosely affiliated group of some ten people and not an extensive and sophisticated criminal organization.

In the meantime, Yaponchik has been sentenced to U.S. federal prison for nine years and seven months. In a recent interview from prison, Yaponchik accuses the FBI of feeding the myth of a Russian Mafia to prove the usefulness of their Russian section. They are, he says, "only tilting with windmills." According to Yaponchik, there is no myth about organized crime in Russia because everyone knows that "Russia is one uninterrupted criminal swamp." The criminals are in the Kremlin and the Duma (the legislature), and anyone who thinks that someone like him is the head of all these "bandits" is delirious.

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