“Nobody remembers the first man who walked on the moon,” but “Everybody remembers Al Capone,” according to a particularly notorious Russian gangster interviewed in prison by author Robert I. Friedman. The remark not only exemplifies a criminal’s admiration of success and fame in the underworld, but suggests the mass appeal of investigative crime journalism, including this excellent account of the rise of the so-called “Russian Mafiya.” The deterioration of infrastructure resulting from the breakup of the Soviet Union resulted in a condition ripe for the Russian mob to seize power. During the period of detente in the early 1970’s, Leonid Brezhnev’s allowing limited emigration of Soviet Jews had the unfortunate result of opening a major conduit for hard-core Russian criminals to enter the United States. An initial headquarters of their operations was located in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, which soon boasted elaborate trappings of gangland high-living, such as the Rasputin club, sometimes called The Winter Palace of Brooklyn. The floors were Italian marble, and a huge hand-painted mural of St. Petersburg adorned the foyer. Stretch limousines lined up outside to discharge Russian gangsters dressed in tuxedos, often accompanied by slender blondes in evening gowns.
If this sounds somewhat like the opulence of the Italian mafia of Prohibition and later years, there are numerous fascinating similarities. Indeed, the paths of the Russian newcomers and the established Italian mafia in New York often cross, and there are the expected turf wars, truces, and periods of alternately good and bad relations. Friedman, who has written articles on the Russian mob for various magazines, expertly captures the tension between the two groups, which is frequently punctuated by ruthless violence, cruelty, and assassinations. While the detailed accounts of mob bloodshed are both engrossing and graphic, the author has a sensitivity for the psychology of these particular criminals, not only describing the traditional appeal of quick and easy money for poor immigrants, but putting the typical scenario in the context of the unique situations in which the Russians found themselves. Not only have the Russians successfully mastered the usual bootlegging, extortion, drugs, and weapons trafficking operations, but have moved on to infiltrate U. S. and Canadian financial markets, and even professional hockey leagues, according to the author, who himself has been the subject of death threats for his investigative reporting. Red Mafiya is an action-packed and often terrifying book.