Zarina Zabrisky
20 min readOct 29, 2018


Bombs for the opposition? Dismembering journalists? Poisoning the witnesses? Dead animal parts by the doors? Raging neo-Nazis calling to kill all Jews? Intimidation?

We are overwhelmed by an avalanche of tragedies with no rhyme or reason. To cope and find a way to change the situation, let’s put these events into a historical and cultural context. History offers explanations. What’s happening in Florida, Texas or Pittsburgh today goes back to the events that took place thirty years back in remote corners of the USSR and former Eastern Bloc.

I have seen all this before in the 1990s, in St. Petersburg, a bandit capital of Russia. In the 1990s, the USSR collapsed and so did the economy. Then, private business got allowed and started to generate money. At the same time, the KGB officers, army personnel, elite athletes, Red directors and Communist party leaders lost their jobs, income and power.

Left: “Wild 90s.” Photographer Gennady Likheev. Right: “Wild 90s.” Photographer: Evgeny Kondakov.

So the unemployed servicemen and demoralized athletes joined convicted criminals and formed militarized brigades. These gangs, trained and disciplined, extorted money from entrepreneurs. It was called “krysha” (“roof” or protection fees.) Reluctance to pay “krysha” led to torture, kidnapping of family members or murder.

“Wild 90s.” Photographer Gennady Likheev.

Instead of busting racketeering, the impoverished security and law enforcement structures joined the racketeering — sometimes, for the part of the compensation and sometimes because they did not have resources to fight the gangs. Thus, law enforcement became “a roof” for the organized crime. The local government joined in as for its share and became the “roof” protecting both the organized crime and law enforcement. The businessmen were paying the bandits and cops; the bandits and cops paid the government. A businessman could not call cops on bandits: cops were bandits. The bandits were elected as mayors and governors. They appointed judges and prosecutors. The law turned into lawlessness. In Russian, it is called “bespredel” (“no limit.”)

“Wild 90s.” Photographer Gennady Likheev. Right: Murder. 90s. Photographer unknown.

By the end of the 90s, the bandits, KGB/FSB and the government fused into a conglomerate, glued by crime and mutual interests. The difference between the criminals, police and authorities was no more. Through a privatization and capture of public resources, this group came in possession of all natural resources in Russia and developed an unprecedented wealth. Former bandits, KGB officers and Communists became respected businessmen, “oligarchs.” There was a lot of infighting. Thousands were killed in turf wars. Survivors formed a syndicate. This syndicate came to power in 1999.

Left: “Vodka Kalashnikov.” Right: Souvenir shop in St. Petersburg. Captions on the mugs: “Putin Is Always Right,” “I Read Your Thoughts,” “The Bear Will not Give His Taiga Away to No One.” Photos from the author’s archives.

“The group around Putin today is the same as the one that brought him to power from St. Petersburg in the 1990s,” wrote celebrated author Karen Dawisha in her book “Putin’s Kleptocracy.”

“In the 1990s, everything was up for grabs, and the new vory (thieves) reached out with both hands. State assets were privatized, businesses forced to pay for protection, and as the iron curtain fell, Russian gangsters crashed out into the rest of the world. The vory were part of a way of life that, in its own way, was a reflection of the changes Russia went through in the 20th century. Organized crime truly began to come into its own in a Russia that itself was becoming more organized. Since the restoration of central authority under President Vladimir Putin…, the new vory have adapted again, taking a lower profile, and even working for the state when they must.

The challenge posed by Russian organized crime is a formidable one — and not just at home. Across the world, it trafficks drugs and people, arms insurgents and gangsters, and peddles every type of criminal service, from money laundering to computer hacking. For all that, much of the rest of the world remains willing — indeed, often delighted — to launder these gangsters’ cash and sell them expensive penthouse apartments,” writes Mark Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague and head of its Centre for European Security, a leading Western expert on the Russian organized crime.

It is 2018. The mafia state has turned into a mafia empire. You see its heads popping up in the US and UK, in Europe and Africa. The mafia is now expanding its power over the world, using the money from the privatized oil, gas and natural resources industries, the KGB methods of physical extermination of opposition and brainwashing to subvert the “Western world order.”

I will be publishing a series of articles about the “wild 90s,” illustrating the formation of Russian mafia as a political, economic and cultural institution. It is not a nostalgic excursion into a bygone era but an overview of the world as it is today and a warning to the West.


This first article in the series is a perfect illustration of a common pattern of the “wild 90s.”

Evgeny Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s cook,” went from the life of crime to the Kremlin. A failed Leningrad athlete, he started his business career with a decade of hard labor for theft, fraud, and robbery. In the 90s, he got involved in organized crime and managed a gambling business supervised by Putin. In the early 2000s, he made millions of dollars receiving exclusive state orders for catering, maintenance, and construction from the Kremlin and the Ministry of Defense. He built his own empire within Putin’s empire but here we get back to the concept of “krysha.”

Left: A cover of a book “Krysha” (20 Years since the Death of the USSR. An Oral History of Racketeering.). Right: Deripaska’s description of “krysha.”

No Russian oligarch is the sole owner of his fortune. They pay to the Kremlin for the right to operate and make money. Putin and the FSB provide krysha for all Russian oligarchs.

The compensation comes in form of monetized kickback or services supporting the regime. This is why a small crook and a restauranteur, Prigozhin serves the Kremlin by investing into “troll factories” that spread pro-Kremlin propaganda in Russia and interfere in the US elections of 2016. Thus, political and economic mechanisms of a mafia state merge and influence cultural life by manipulating public opinion at home and abroad.

Furthermore, Prigozhin serves the Kremlin’s interests by sponsoring mercenary groups that are led and staffed by known neo-Nazis and convicted criminals. Illegal in Russia, these private military groups are openly supported by the Kremlin as they conduct military operations in Ukraine and Syria.

In Syria, companies associated with Prigozhin receive 25% of oil and gas money generated in the territories they reclaim for Assad. As a result of the above activities, Prigozhin was sanctioned by the US and EU as a person close to Putin. Local gangs become a world problem.

Prigozhin uses physical violence and intimidation to silence the press coverage of his operations. The latest investigative report into Prigozhin’s business uncovered politically motivated murders, intricate poisoning, and beatings of the opposition in Russia and abroad. In the process of this investigation, the sources disappeared and appeared under murky circumstances. Journalists received funeral flower arrangements and severed animal body parts and the troll factories ran smear campaigns against them. There is no ending to this story: it is unrolling now.

Left: Putin and Prigozhin (left), Putin’s Ally Said to be in Contact with Kremlin, Assad before His Mercenaries Attacked U.S. Troops, Washington Post. Right: Prigozhin and Putin.


The US needs to pay attention to Prigozhin’s business, Concord Management and Consulting LLC , because it has interfered in the US elections 2016.

It is “one of three entities and thirteen Russian individuals indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office in February 2018 in an alleged criminal and espionage conspiracy to tamper in the U.S. race, boost Trump and disparage his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton. The indictment said Concord controlled funding, recommended personnel and oversaw the activities of the propaganda campaign. According to the indictment, Concord failed to register as a foreign agent, failed to make required disclosures to the Federal Election Commission, and made false statements to secure fraudulent visas.

The company’s lawyers did not deny the fact of the company’s participation in the campaign but argued that Concord’s failure to register as a foreign agent or report campaign-related expenditures did not constitute a crime, according to Bloomberg. On May 14, 2018, attorneys for Concord filed a motion to dismiss and proposed dismissal order with the court on which Judge Kavanaugh currently sits, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, citing Kavanaugh nine times. In a memo accompanying the motion and proposed order, Judge Kavanaugh is referenced nine times in total, to argue that the charges against Concord should be dropped.

Concord lawyers, in particular, noted that Kavanaugh warned the government in a 2011 court decision that in order to charge foreigners with violating laws about political contributions, the government first must prove that those foreigners knew that they were breaking the laws.

On June 27, 2018, Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement. On July 9, 2018, Trump announced that he selected Kavanaugh to become an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States filling the vacancy left by the retirement Kennedy.

On October 23, 2018, Special Counsel Robert Mueller pushed back against Concord, “telling a federal judge that the charges filed against the firm — conspiracy to defraud the U.S. — aren’t dependent on proving that election interference is a crime. The prosecutors only need to show that Concord and its alleged co-conspirators agreed to engage in conduct that violated their duties to register as foreign agents and report campaign expenditures.



Evgeny “Zhenya” Prigozhin was born in Leningrad (later St. Petersburg) in 1961 and, like most people in Putin’s close circles, got involved into sports at an early age. He attended a special sports boarding school for future athletes, specializing in skiing. At eighteen, he was sentenced to two and a half years of probation for theft and was sent to serve his term outside of Leningrad.

An article in a Russian publication Rosbalt, The Stormy Youth of the “Kremlin Restaurateur,” sums up Prigozhin’s early career: thefts, fraud, assault. The report is based on court documents and eyewitness accounts.

In 1980, Prigozhin — then nineteen — returned to Leningrad without finishing his probation. Together with other young men, Prigozhin robbed apartments. The long list of stolen items includes vases, napkin holders, wine glasses, vodka shot glasses, tape recorders, crystal, a jeans jacket, a woman’s purse with makeup, hallway rugs, pens and two horns. In addition to multiple thefts, Prigozhin and a group of friends committed fraud by offering to sell Western-made jeans and other clothes unavailable in stores in the USSR and stealing the money without delivering the goods.

Another crime included an assault on a young woman for the purpose of stealing her coat, earrings and boots. According to an accomplice, Prigozhin tried to strangle the victim and took off her earrings.

The group was arrested. Prigozhin was sentenced to thirteen years of hard labor and confiscation of property for theft, fraud, the involvement of a minor in criminal activities (prostitution), and robbery. Prigozhin served only nine years of this sentence.


In 1997, Prigozhin opened a luxury restaurant “New Island” on a boat in St. Petersburg. Putin frequented the boat and had a few important meetings there, including a dinner with President of France Jacques Chirac in 2001, dinner with the US President Bush in 2002 as well as his own birthday party in 2003. In August 2004, according to an investigation by TSURrrealism and previous reports, Prigozhin beat up a young man on board of the “New Island.” As a result of this beating, the young man fell into the river and drowned. Later, the crew was intimidated by Prigozhin and his security team, “current and former employees of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.” The crew then helped to conceal the crime.


According to an article in Novaya Gazeta, before coming to the restaurant business, Prigozhin managed a gambling business in St. Petersburg in the 1990s at the time when Putin was the chairman of the casino and gambling supervisory council of the city. Licenses for gambling activities were issued on the proposal of the Council headed by Putin.

According to the registration chamber of St. Petersburg, Prigozhin was the general director of a company which was co-owned by Boris Spector, Prigozhin’s classmate and a member of an organized crime group, and Igor Gorbenko, a director of the “Neva-Chance,” an entity founded by the Foreign Relations Committee headed by Putin.

According to Artyom Kruglov, the editor of the Putinism site, Spector belonged to the organized crime group (OCG) Kutaisskie (“from Kutaisi”) run by Mikhail Mirilashvili, aka “Misha Kutaissky,” one of the richest people in St. Petersburg at the time. Kutaisskie OCG ran the biggest network of casinos in St. Petersburg. In the 1990s, Kutaisskie OCG was the second most influential gang after Tambov-Malyshev OCG. Prigozhin was in charge of running a supermarket network and worked for Kutaisskie until 2000–2001.

In 2001, Prigozhin broke up with Kutaisskie and became close to Putin’s personal driver and personal security guards. Artyom Kruglov believes that Prigozhin got introduced to Putin by Roman Tsepov and Victor Zolotov, security guards who provided services to Putin in the early 2000s and eventually became the GRU frontman and a money purse behind the “active measures.”


Tsepov, aka “Roma Producer,” a former officer responsible for the political education of a unit of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, provided liaisons between casino businesses and the Mayor’s office and ran a private security services company that also specialized in racketeering and robbery. His firm provided protection to Saint Petersburg city mayor Anatoly Sobchak and his family, as well as the vice-mayor Putin as well as organized crime bosses, in particular Aleksandr Malyshev, of Malyshev OCG, and several figures of the Tambov Gang.

Left: Cult TV series “Bandit St. Petersburg,” Caption reads: “When the Power Belongs to Criminals.” Right: Tsepov’s grave. From Internet archives.

Tsepov co-produced and played a small part of a bandit in a popular TV-series Bandit St.Petersburg. He became an influential person in St. Petersburg and a close Putin’s ally but, reportedly, fell out of grace for interfering into YUKOS affair.

Tsepov died in 2004, allegedly after drinking tea poisoned by polonium-210, two years before Alexander Litvienko. (Polonium-210 is produced only in Russia, at a factory in Arzamas and the production is controlled by the Russian government.)

Tsepov’s background and career path was typical: from a communist party ideologue to criminal to law enforcement and government — and, sometimes, — to a grave, with many murders along the way: the “wild 90s” hit the country hard.

St. Petersburg at the time was nicknamed “a bandit capital.”

“…In the 1990s it was next to impossible to make serious amounts of money without engaging in practices that were ethically questionable at best, and downright illegal at worst,” writes Marc Galeotti. “During that time, murder was a depressingly common way of resolving business disputes. The notorious “aluminium wars” of the early 90s, for example, saw thugs occupying factories, a string of murders and lurid accounts of organized crime activity across the metals industries. Recent research suggests that the contract killings related to those wars likely numbered in the thousands.”

According to the gloomy statistics, in 1993, in Moscow, 5,000 organized crime-related murders were recorded. When consumer price inflation hovered around 1,600% between 1992 and 1993, housewives worked late shifts as casino prostitutes to make ends meet; policemen would sometimes give them a lift to their shifts, if bribed on time. Murder evolved into a business strategy, and high-profile killings were an early part of Russia’s post-Communist collective memory.

“Because of the increase in shootouts among rival gangs over dividing the spoils, Moscow had been compared to Chicago during prohibition,” claimed the 1996 report on the Russian Organized Crime at Hearing in the US Senate.


Putin and his bodyguard, Zolotov. Source: Compromat.ru.

Tsepov’s unofficial partner was Victor Zolotov, at the time the bodyguard of St.Petersburg’s Mayor Anatoly Sobchak and his family and later Putin. Zolotov became Putin’s sparring partner in boxing and judo, and “whenever Putin appeared in public, Zolotov could be spotted walking directly behind him.”

In 2018, Zolotov is the Commander-in-Chief of the National Guard of Russia (Rosgvardiya) and a member of the Security Council of Russia. In October 2018, he made news by promising to make “minced meat” out of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny after Navalny’s team conducted an investigation into Zolotov’s multi-million estate.


In 2010, Prigozhin’s first food factory complex, the Concord Group, opened outside of St. Petersburg, with Putin in attendance. The state-owned Russian bank Vnesheconombank provided a credit for 30 million euros out of the total project cost of approximately 40 million euros. Putin is on the supervisory board of Vnesheconombank.

In 2008 and 2012, Prigozhin’s company provided catering for inauguration parties for Medvedev and Putin, accordingly. During these years, his companies also have won 90% bids of the Ministry of Defense, including food supplies and maintenance. In May 2017, Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption team found out that Prigozhin ran a cartel breaking the anti-monopoly law. According to the New York Times, state regulators “reviewed eight Defense Ministry contracts won by businesses linked to Mr. Prigozhin and issued a stern rebuke in May 2017… The government announced that it would not press charges… ‘We don’t expect him to be punished given that he is among the president’s closest friends,’ said Maksim L. Reznik, another St. Petersburg legislator demanding that he be investigated.” In November 2017, the case was closed.

Prigozhin’s catering business also supplies 90% of school lunches in Moscow.


In 2012, Prigozhin got involved into a “troll factory” in St. Petersburg. In 2014, he added another propaganda agency “Federal Agency of News” (FAN.)

Photos from the author’s archives.

“In recent years, the Kremlin has made much use of information warfare, gaining support in the West from nostalgic communist fellow travelers, the rising far-right and conspiracy theorists…The Kremlin has also utilized cultural campaigns, exploiting religious sympathies amongst both fellow Orthodox populations, and religious conservatives in Europe and the USA, who align themselves with Putin’s message of traditional values and homophobia,” wrote hybrid war experts Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss in their critically important and overlooked report in 2014.

In 2014, Prigozhin moved from the information warfare to the traditional combat operations. Journalists traced the connections between his businesses and the Wagner mercenary group in East Ukraine and Syria.

According to the article 359 of the Russian Criminal Code, private military companies are illegal in Russia. Recruiting, training, financing or other material support of a mercenary, just as acting as a mercenary, and the use of mercenaries in armed conflict or military actions are punished with imprisonment. Despite this fact, in 2014–15, Wagner mercenaries appeared in separatist-controlled Donbass in Ukraine and in late 2015, in Syria.

According to the Atlantic, “Wagner has functioned as an undeclared branch of the Russian military: Its fighters fly to Syria on Russian military aircraft, receive treatment in Russian military hospitals, work alongside regular Russian forces in operations, and are awarded Russian military medals signed personally by Vladimir Putin.”

According to the Washington Post, “U.S. intelligence reports suggest that Prigozhin was in touch with both the Kremlin and Syrian officials shortly before and after the attack [in Syria in February, 2018] The situation raises big questions about what role a Russian mercenary firm — or rather a “pseudo-mercenary” firm, according to Russian military expert Mark Galeotti — was playing in the Syrian war.”

Not just this: In November 2017, Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Wagner’s leader Utkin attended a Kremlin banquet and that Utkin had previously been awarded the Order of Courage for his military service. When asked why Utkin was awarded the Order of Courage, Peskov hesitated saying that such awards are common.

Left: The leader of a Russian private security firm Dmitry Utkin is reported to have been on the guest list of a Nov. 9 Kremlin banquet. Right: Putin with Utkin (right.)


The private military company Wagner is called after the code name of its leader Dmitry Utkin, inspired by German composer Richard Wagner, whose music is associated with the Third Reich. According to some reports, Wagner has a swastika tattooed on his shoulder. Utkin and at least few of mercenaries are also known to be “rodnovery,” a neo-pagan “Slavonic” faith based on a racist ideology that incorporates symbols and rhetorics close to Nazism and Bolshevism. This type of paganism is known to be promoted by the KGB in the 90s.

Left: “Let the faith of our ancestors be reborn! A Russian, remember your roots.” Right: Wagner’s Artyom and Valdislav Krasnolutskie.

Various publications wrote about several other neo-Nazis mercenaries of Wagner group.

Utkin was born in Ukraine in 1970, raised by a single mother and fought in the war in Chechnya. Until 2013, Utkin served as a commander of a Special Forces Detachment of the Russian Military Intelligence.


After resigning, Utkin worked for Moran Security Group, a private security company in Moscow providing security services for ships sailing in the area frequented by pirates. In 2014, Uktin became the head of Wagner group.

The president of this company Vyacheslav Kalashnikov, a Putin’s KGB colleague, worked in security services in St. Petersburg in 1981–1994. According to some sources, Kalashnikov introduced himself as an FSB general as late as 2013.

In 2001–2003, Kalashnkov worked as an assistant Senator Alexander Torshin, a Vice-Speaker of The Federation Council, the upper house of the Federal Assembly of Russia, in 2012–15, and currently a Deputy Chairman of the Central Bank of Russia.

Torshin, is one of the alleged leaders of Tambov organized crime group, who is under investigation in the U.S. and is connected to Maria Butina.

Torshin and Butina are known to infiltrate the NRA and seek close relationship with high-level conservative Republicans. Butina was indicted and arrested by the U. S. Department of Justice and charged for espionage.

Left: Torshin and Putin. Right: Butina and Torshin.


According to a memorandum, signed by the Syrian government (with a participation of the Ministry of Energy of Russia,) 25% of all the gas and oil produced in the oil and gas fields, refineries, other objects of oil and gas infrastructure in the territory freed from ISIS, reclaimed for Bashar Assad and properly secured against future attacks, reportedly, is transferred to a commercial company OOO “Evro-Polis,” registered in St.Petersburg under individuals associated with Prigozhin’s business. Fontanka.ru published a detailed investigative report supported by official documents showing the connections:

Thus, Prigozhin’s empire expanded, adding military and oil and gas industry to the existing catering, maintenance and constructions industrial complexes.


On October 22, 2018, a Russian publication Novaya Gazeta, known for its independent investigative research, published an article on Prigozhin and his associates. Journalists talked to a source who shared details on murder, violence and blackmail carried out on the instructions of Prigozhin’s employees and then went missing under suspicious circumstances — his two phones and one shoe were found in the street — a few hours after meeting with the journalist of Novaya Gazeta on October 2, 2018, only to reappear after several days and ask to close the police investigation into his disappearance.

Radio Svoboda. Interview with Novaya Gazeta, Rosbalt and RBK journalists. In Russian.

Valery Amelchenko, a 61 years old former convict, who began working with Prigozhin’s people in 2012–2013, told journalists about various tasks ordered by Prigozhin’s security services, including a murder of an anti-Putin blogger in Pskov who was killed by an injection of an unknown substance in the street; beating up of a blogger in Sochi after he had shared a Le Monde’s caricature of Putin; a staged car accident in St. Petersburg when a hired homeless person threw himself under the car of an entrepreneur who had a real estate dispute with Prigozhin; a hired murder of an important person in Lugansk; and a trip to Syria in February 12, 2017, with the task of testing various poisoning chemicals on the members of ISIS, and other militants captured by the Syrian army.

According to Radio Svoboda, “unknown persons last week also left a basket containing a severed ram’s head and red carnations” at the office of Novaya Gazeta with note to the chief editor and the journalist working on the article. Same day, as the article was published, October 22, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the Kremlin “has seen the article” about Prigozhin but was “not aware of any confirmation of the published information by the competent organs.”


According to Bloomberg, in an interview with Austria’s ORF television, Putin compared Prigozhin to George Soros, claiming that the latter “intervenes in things all over the world.” “But the State Department will tell you that it has nothing to do with that, that this is the personal business of Mr. Soros… Well for us, this is the personal business of Mr. Prigozhin,” Putin said. ‘There’s your answer. Does that response satisfy you?’ Putin, smiling, asked.

Anyone familiar with life in Putin’s Russia understands that there is no such thing as “personal business” there. “Money laundering is a serious crime. When a head of state is a money launderer, America must take it seriously,” said Preet Bharara, a former U.S. attorney, fired by Trump. There are many documented and proven crimes committed by the Putin’s regime that are much more serious than money laundering and the world is not taking it seriously.

This is not just about a shady restaurant owner and Putin’s “money bag” behind the active measures. He, perhaps, does not deserve a story. Private life reflects the life of a society and vice versa. Economy translates into politics; politics influence economy. Culture, collective mentality and history are inseparable. This is a story of a mafia state.

All countries have mafia — but Russian mafia has a country, a joke goes. One can only hope that it does not get the world.

*All facts and photos are in public domain and available through Google. Links to the original sources are included.

* Click and hold the clapping hands on the left bottom corner so more Medium users can read it. The longer you hold it, the more claps the article gets and more people will be able to find out this article. Share on the social media: we need independent research.



Zarina Zabrisky

Zarina Zabrisky is the author of IRON and CUTE TOMBSTONE, EXPLOSION, a poetry book GREEN LIONS, and a novel WE, MONSTERS. More at www.zarinazabrisky.com.