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Wednesday, April 1, 1998 Published at 15:24 GMT 16:24 UK

So who are the Russian mafia ?

Young Russian police recruits earn $200 a month and are vulnerable to corruption

While there may be thousands of mafia groups in Russia only a handful are large enough to maintain a serious threat.

The biggest gangs are the Dolgopruadnanskaya and the Solntsevskaya.

The latter, named after the Moscow suburb of Solntsevo from which it hails, has around 5,000 members.

Its leader is believed to be Sergei Mikhailov, known as Mikhas, who is being held by the authorities in Switzerland.

The Solntsevskaya specialises in drugs and gun smuggling but is not averse to extortion and the American hotelier Paul Tatum, who was shot dead in 1995, claimed they had threatened his life only a few weeks before.

[ image: Doug Steele with his Russian bodyguard]
Doug Steele with his Russian bodyguard
Routine extortion

Extortion has become a way of life in Russia.

Canadian entrepreneur Doug Steele owns a Moscow nightclub called The Hungry Duck and reckons he has paid out 625,000 ($1m) in pay-offs to police, officials and the mafia.

Mr Steele, who has already survived one kidnapping attempt, says: "You have to grease the palm or you won't be in business.

"If it was not for the mafia there would not be an economy. They are a major driving force behind what goes on here."

In Moscow, the Ostankino and Lubertsy clans are significant players.

In St Petersburg, the underworld is beginning to be dominated by the Tambov syndicate, based in the eponymous town 200 miles (330km) from Moscow and headed by Vladimir Gavrilenkov.

Chechens and Georgians, like Sicilians and Neapolitans, have played a disproportionately large role in the underworld.

The largest Chechen mafia is the Obshina, who have made much of their money from bank robberies, kidnapping and white collar crime.

Their leader, Nikolay Suleimanov, currently is trying to elbow his way into the lucrative East European cigarette smuggling racket.

Laundering mafia money

Any institution with access to large amounts of money can expect a visit from the mafia.

The Afghan veterans' association, which has a welfare role similar to the British Legion or the Vietnam Veterans' Association, is thought to have been used to launder dirty money.

Its head was murdered in 1994 and it split into two groups.

The head of one branch, Valery Radchikov, survived an assassination attempt the following year.

[ image: Vyacheslav Ivankov's tattoo denotes him as a 'thief in law']
Vyacheslav Ivankov's tattoo denotes him as a 'thief in law'
In November 1996 the leader of the other faction, Sergei Trakhirov, his wife and 11 others were killed when a bomb exploded in a cemetery during a funeral.

Mafia invades New York

When the Russian mafia began to move into the United States it chose Vyacheslav Ivankov, known as Yaponchik or "Little Japanese", to head its New York operation.

He was convicted in November 1997 in a 3.5m ($5.9m) extortion case.

Louis Freeh, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), said: "In 10 or 20 years Ivankov would have been a very, very dangerous criminal leader, not just in the United States but worldwide."

The FBI believes his place as head of the Russian mafia in America has already been filled.

It will take more than one court case to stop the Russian mafia's worldwide expansion.

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International Association for the Study of Organized Crime: The "sexy" Russian mafia

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