Gennady Karkov, the notorious Soviet Union gangster known best as “The Mongol,” stood out amid a world of vicious criminals.
At the heart of the cold war, as the United States fought the Soviet Union to economic stagnation, the Russian mafia — called the vory, or “thieves in law” — waged their own private war on the communist state’s criminal capitalist underclass, and The Mongol helped lead the way.
Karkov, born 1930 in Kulebaki, some 186 miles east of Moscow, was a child of Josef Stalin’s purges and famine, of the Gulag’s forced industrialization and the Second World War. The specific details of his childhood are slim, but as Mark Galeotti details in his in-depth history of Russian organized crime, “The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia,” “he soon fled the smog and shadow of Kulebaki’s foundaries and the workers’ barrack blocks around them and took to the underworld.”
By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953, Karkov, a young man of 23, was nearly ready to be crowned The Mongol, a king in his own right — a vory v zakone or “thief within the code” of the Vorovskoy Mir, a loosely affiliated group of mobsters with a standardized vernacular, design aesthetic and code of conduct.
There were criminals before Stalin, of course, and even vory. Horse thieves terrorized rural populations, and local gangs in city centers plied their trade in the nation’s slums, complete with pick-pocketing, burglary and petty theft. But Galeotti details how the chaos and corruption of Bolshevism emboldened the rise of the vory, gangsters who flourished under communism.
Yes, Soviet communism proved to be the ultimate racket, and Karkov a master racketeer. Clever and vicious, The Mongol — so named for his distinct Asiatic appearance — rose quickly through the criminal ranks, soon amassing a motley following of 30 or so thugs who terrorized the streets of Moscow in the ’60s and ’70s. Galeotti calls his gang “a finishing school for a generation of future kingpins.”
At first, they kept it simple. Karkov, “a natural-born leader who was very willing to get his hands dirty,” and his goons dressed in police garb, so as to enter homes with few questions asked, and robbed them.
After that Karkov served six years for theft, emerging from prison in 1962 with a new, ambitious plan to target the crooked tsekhoviki — “shopmen” — selling illegal goods usually in league with some crooked Communist Party member. Initially content with just robbing these vulnerable black-market entreprenuers, The Mongol soon put in place a far more lucrative scheme: extorting payment in exchange for “protection.”
Karkov and his men would seize anyone who refused to pay a tithe and take them out of town to abandoned locations, where they were sadistically tortured — burned with hot irons, hanged from trees — and killed if they continued to hold out. One member of the gang aptly named “The Executioner” would nail kidnapped criminals into a coffin and then proceed to saw them in two, “as if in a magic trick.”
During 1971 alone, the gang was able to pull off several dozen of these vicious heists. One victim was Voldemar Mirkin, an antiques dealer who refused The Mongol’s demands and was thus surprised, the next day, to find a large van blocking his car’s path in the road. When he got out to protest, a group of thugs kidnapped Mirkin and stuffed him into a coffin in the back of the van.
The van peeled off but stopped again at the sound of a police siren. Suddenly a policeman entered the truck, and Mirkin peered through a small hole in the coffin as Karkov’s thugs pulled out their guns and released a hail of bullets. Afterwards, Mirkin screamed his full consent to the extortionists from inside the pine box. (He didn’t even seem to care much when, upon his release from the coffin, the “slain policeman” rose from the dead, clapping hands with his collaborators. It was Vyacheslav “Yaponchik” Ivankov, a member of Karkov’s gang, of course.)
Karkov was eventually arrested again in a massive 1972 sting, and the death penalty threatened. Witnesses began to recant and police files went missing, but in the end the state sentenced him to 14 hard years. His gang continued to operate while he was imprisoned.
In the late ’70s, partly or even mostly because of the chaos his gang had sown in Moscow and beyond, a panel of kingpins came together and decided upon a formal tax that the shopmen would have to pay out to protect themselves from the vory’s violence. As a result, an uncomfortable alliance formed for some time between the organized criminals, the corrupt shopmen and their benefactors — the communist state.
The Mongol again returned to his criminal activities upon his release in 1986, but this time, Galeotti writes, his time had passed — noting that Karkov did, however, build something of a fiefdom for himself, purchasing a mansion in France with his ill-gotten gains, before dying of natural causes in 1994.
Meanwhile, The Mongol’s cruel cunning inspired others to follow in his footsteps, and some members of his gang would go on to become notorious themselves — including fake cop “Yaponchik,” who briefly reigned supreme in Brighton Beach in the ’90s after fellow vory encouraged him to leave Russia as punishment for his own crimes. The feds eventually caught him on murder charges and shipped him back to Mother Russia — where he was soon assassinated.
Galeotti writes: “Karkov’s true legacy was not just a new generation of vory but also a whole new criminal world in which they would operate.”