How two Russian mobsters got caught up in the Iraqi civil war

By Niko Vorobjov

Until that small matter of downing one of their aircraft, Turkey was a popular spot for millions of Russian tourists. It’s sunny and not too far away – just a hop and a skip across the Black Sea – and unlike Europe there’s no mountains of paperwork to get a visa. There’s even a hotel in Antalya themed on the Kremlin. Maybe it’s for that reason that among the hordes of red sunburnt holidaymakers and their screaming litter, the flights from Moscow also brought with them the vory-v-zakone; the kings of the Russian mafia.

The vory-v-zakone, or ‘thieves-in-law’, are a uniquely Russian phenomenon. Formed in the Soviet gulags in the 30s, the vory played a prominent role in the gang wars of the 90s. They comprise Russians, Georgians, Chechens, Kazakhs, Armenians and all the other nationalities of the former USSR. But not everyone can be a member. Like the yakuza or the Cosa Nostra, the vory-v-zakone live by a code of honour that governs their behavior, giving them authority and respect over other criminals. You must have done time and constantly asserted yourself as a leader among your fellow convicts, along with a total devotion to the criminal lifestyle.

On a street level, the Russian mob isn’t particularly active in Turkey. They bring in girls here and there from places like Ukraine and Moldova and force them to work in brothels, but nothing that will upset the local big shots. There’s been rumors that one of the top bosses, Zakhar Kalashov (photo right) aka ‘Shakro Junior’, has been supplying arms to the Kurdish separatist outfit the PKK on behalf of Russian intelligence, but so far that’s all they are; rumors.

If they’re true, the Turkish establishment, it has to be said, aren’t above playing such dirty tricks themselves. For years the flow of heroin into Europe was tightly controlled by the Deep State, a secret alliance of military and intelligence officers, shady businessmen and organized crime that periodically mounted a coup every now and then whenever it felt that the government was getting too Islamist or left-wing. These links came into the fore in 1996 when a car crashed in the rural town of Susurluk. The casualties included a chief of police, an MP from the ruling party and a wanted mafia boss who also happened to be the leader of the far-right Grey Wolves paramilitary group which once tried to assassinate the Pope. But mostly the Russians use Turkey the same as everyone else: to relax on a nice Mediterranean beach and get away from the daily grind of extortion and drab Soviet apartment blocks back home.

There was a situation developing. There was a situation emerging. Thief-in-law Vadim Ivanenko aka ‘Vadik Krasnodar’ (photo right), was being held responsible for six million dollars disappearing from the obshak, a kind of 'take a penny, leave a penny' for the criminal milieu where those in the know can pool funds to pay off lawyers, judges, etc. It didn’t seem like such a big deal. Vadik was a man of his word, and for his part claimed the loot was stolen by some crooked cops and he intended to pay back every penny. Nevertheless, senior mob leaders called for a sit-down. Among those sent to the meeting was 38-year old Oleg Pirogov aka ‘Circus’. An ethnic Russian born in Latvia, Circus was a rising star in the Slavic underworld. And so on February 9th 2015, Vadik sat down with Pirogov and two other vory, Georgi Sorokin aka ‘Tashkent George’ and Vladimir Zhurakovsky aka ‘Vova the Plump’, as well as a younger Kazakh gangster, Almas Konsbayev aka ‘Mongol’, at the Lara Beach restaurant in Antalya.

The meal was going well and no-one raised their voices until suddenly, Mongol apparently pulled out a gun and opened fire, hitting Vadik and Plump. Police arrived and paramedics declared Ivanenko dead at the scene, while Zhurakovsky was taken away in an ambulance with a gunshot wound to the shoulder. Mongol immediately confessed his guilt and was taken in along with Pirogov and Tashkent George, who were caught trying to flee.

According to his statement, Almas killed Vadik in a crime of passion: Ivanenko raped his 22-year old fiancée back in Moscow and escaped punishment. Be that as it may, there could be more to this story than appears at first glance.

You see, as well as owing money and being a potential rapist, Vadik was involved in a turf dispute with a certain David Ozmanov over the Southern Russian region of Kuban. Ozmanov is a relative of Zakhar Kalashov, the capo di tutti capi mentioned earlier, and one of his most trusted lieutenants. Many people might have wanted him dead, but Vadik Krasnodar was a respected thief so it must have taken someone higher-up to give the green light. Vova the Plump, who was kept in the dark about any decision to ice Vadik, threw himself on the shooter, sustaining a wound in the process.
At the police station, Pirogov explained being covered in gunshot residue by claiming he was the one who wrestled Mongol, so he and Sorokin were released but ordered not to leave the country. Publicly, the police denied the murder was an organized crime hit, and newspapers reported it as just another argument between drunk Russian tourists. Oh, those Russians and their vodka! But behind the scenes the investigation was ongoing, and evidence soon pointed to Circus as the possible triggerman.

Having seen Midnight Express, Pirogov had no desire to stick around for events to run their full course. So he called on his friend Viktor Zharinov aka ‘Caesar’, another thief-in-law, and together they plotted his escape. They got in touch with some local smugglers who promised to take them over the border. Turkey's rather 'blah' attitude to securing it's southern frontier has left it under the control of the myriad of armed factions roaming through the humanitarian cluster-fuck that we used to call the Middle East: Kurds, Turkmen, the Syrian military, al-Qaeda's buddies the al-Nusra Front, "moderate" Islamist groups like the Infidel Annihilators of Allah and of course the granddaddy of them all, ISIS or the Islamic State. This makes Turkey a questionable ally in fighting the scourge of terrorism, but also leaves a perfect getaway for any fugitives bent on getting away from the watchful eye of the law.

Sometime between late February and early March, the pair made their move.
The plan, once they got across, was to wait for a bus that would take them to Baghdad. From there, they’d transit safely back to Russia via Kuwait. But in order to get there they would have to trek through the rugged mountains of south-eastern Anatolia, not the easiest hike especially if you’re trying to stay off the beaten path. It was in these isolated and remote mountains that the PKK guerrillas found their hiding place during a very nasty insurgency in the 90s. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, there was the issue of their present company to consider: the porous Turkish border is also the main route by which new recruits get to the Islamic State, which just so happened to be this smuggler’s main line of business. The two gangsters found themselves travelling alongside a dozen radicalised young men, each of them giddy like a schoolgirl at the prospect of killing unbelievers.
But no matter. By the 8th of March, Circus, Caesar and their militant cohorts were in Iraq and well beyond the sweaty grasp of Turkish law enforcement. Freedom awaited.

Or so they thought. While making their way through the badlands of northern Iraq the whole unlikely party ran into a checkpoint run by the Kurdish peshmerga.

Like the Wu-Tang Clan, the Kurdish peshmerga ain't nuttin' to fuck wit. Facing the very real threat of the destruction of their way of life, the peshmerga, whose name roughly translates to "those who face death," have been offering the fiercest resistance to ISIS' insane, genocidal, women-enslaving, head-rolling rampage. Unlike other armies around the world, women fight on the front line, as being killed by a woman means the ISIS warrior won't make it into the afterlife. Needless to say, the peshmerga don't take kindly to terrorists. And it was in their hands that Caesar and Circus now found themselves.

Here you have a strange scene. On the one hand you have twelve wannabe jihadis, religious fervour burning in their hearts, who immediately confess to wanting to join the Caliphate. On the other you have two middle-aged Russians; one of them wanted for some crap in Turkey, another whose documents check out but for some reason is still trying to creep across the border. While the young men’s purpose is obvious, the two Russians stubbornly clung to their story. Something didn’t add up. Clearly, thought the Kurds, we’re dealing with some bigger fish here.

Their fears were not unfounded. Russians have been signing up for ISIS in the hundreds, with Chechens making up the largest contingent. One of the Islamic State’s top honchos, Abu Omar al-Shishani aka ‘the Chechen’, was born Tarkhan Tayumurazovich Batirashvili in the Pankisi Gorge region of the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia.

The mobsters loudly protested their innocence, but the Kurds were taking no chances. They were taken to a prison in Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where they were given the full 5-star treatment. While information about human rights in Kurdistan is murky, Amnesty International has raised the issue of torture and mistreatment in Kurdish jails back in 2009 and it doesn’t look like our heroes fared any better. Their interrogators simply could not understand why anyone would try to sneak into Iraq when usually, anyone with half a brain is trying to get the fuck out. They simply had to keep applying pressure till one of them cracked.

Months went by. Beatings, electrocutions, sleep deprivation; still the Russians wouldn’t budge, telling the same stupid story about being on the run from the Turkish authorities, how they as Kurds ought to have some sympathy and if anything, they should just let them go to piss off the Turks. The prison administrators, known for being a bunch of hard-asses, forbid them from talking to their lawyer, and both men’s formerly athletic physique dropped to 50 kilos.

Things went from bad to worse. First the hearing for their case was postponed for the holy month of Ramadan. Then, once they finally got to the tribunal, the prosecutor’s claim that they were connected to the would-be jihadis was accepted by the judge who sentenced them to seven years hard time. Maybe they should have considered themselves lucky: charges of terrorism in Iraq carry a maximum penalty of 20 years.

It seemed like they were in it for the long haul. But just as it looked as though they’d have to start learning Arabic, lawyers for the pair got through to the Russian embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in Erbil, demanding they intervene on their clients’ behalf. Dutifully, diplomats then presented documents to the Iraqi authorities confirming that neither Pirogov nor Zharinov were involved in terrorist activity in the Russian Federation, and that according to intelligence reports neither’s presence in Iraq sprung from a desire to achieve martyrdom. As one inside source told the news outlet Rosbalt: “Oleg and Viktor might not be the most law-abiding citizens, but they have absolutely no connection to terrorism.”

And so after seven months of captivity, the two men were released. On the 11th of October 2015, Oleg Pirogov and Viktor Zharinov landed at Vnukovo International Airport, Moscow on a flight from Tehran. Since his arrival back to the Motherland, Pirogov (photo above) has been re-asserting his status in the criminal underworld. His Mideast escapades boosted his gangster credentials and according to PrimeCrime, a Russian-language website that chronicles the vory-v-zakone and their exploits, there’s no name that rings louder and with more resonance with the hustlers, bandits and outlaws than that of Circus.

After the downing of the Russian warplane on November 24th 2015, relations between Turkey and Russia quickly went south. Ankara claimed the plane violated Turkish airspace, while Moscow struck back with claims Turkey was funding Daesh. President Vladimir Putin then hit them where it hurts, cutting off all charter flights to Turkey then banning its tour companies from operating there. Between that and the bombing of the flight over Egypt, Russians are running out of sunny places to go. But something tells me that for two Russian citizens, another trip to Antalya won’t be missed.

About the author: Born in Leningrad in the dying days of the Soviet Union, Niko’s family emigrated to Italy and the United States before settling in Great Britain where he went from behind the Iron Curtain to behind bars, serving a prison sentence for selling drugs at university where he was studying for a degree in history and, ironically, criminology. He now works as a freelance writer, mainly helping students cheat on their homework but also putting out pieces for sites like Gangsters Inc., Salon, and Gorilla Convict based on his experiences of crime and drugs.