June 1, 2013
The waiters hovered as Alimzhan T. Tokhtakhounov worked through a platter of chilled mussels, shrimp and octopus one afternoon last month at the restaurant Palazzo Ducale, one of the finest here. The staff could afford to be attentive: there was no one else to serve.
Despite the hour, toward the end of what is usually a busy lunchtime, the restaurant was empty when Mr. Tokhtakhounov came in to speak with a reporter about recent racketeering charges in the United States.
American law enforcement officials view Mr. Tokhtakhounov as a leading figure in Russian organized crime, a member of a storied order of Russian mobsters who is accused of, among other activities, fixing skating matches at the Salt Lake City Olympics and running a high-stakes, trans-Atlantic gambling and money-laundering ring.
But aside from the eerie void in the restaurant and a guard outside, Mr. Tokhtakhounov’s life here seems open and even somewhat ordinary.
Like other men whom the American authorities have identified as Russian mobsters, he walks the streets freely, albeit with a bodyguard. He has his picture taken smiling alongside the glitterati at concerts, fashion shows and soccer matches. He invests in real estate and has recently taken up fiction writing. He showed his guest one of his novels, “Angel From Couture,” a semiautobiographical story that focuses on the love affair of a young model and an older man.
Whatever else he may be, he insisted over lunch, he is innocent of all charges against him.
“I am not bad, like you think,” he said, spearing an octopus tentacle with his fork and washing it down with sparkling mineral water. “I am not the Mafia, I am not a bandit.”
Federal authorities in the United States have been pursuing Mr. Tokhtakhounov (pronounced toe-TAH-hoon-ov) since 2002, when he was charged with fixing ice dancing and pairs skating competitions at the Salt Lake City Olympics.
In the more recent case, federal prosecutors in Manhattan charged him in April with being a leader of a sports betting ring with operations in New York, Los Angeles, Russia and Ukraine. The setup drew in billionaire gamblers and laundered money through accounts around the world, prosecutors say.
Their indictment identifies Mr. Tokhtakhounov as a particular type of Russian criminal known as a “Vor v Zakone,” or “thief in law,” sometimes known as a Vor: a member of an almost priestly order, originally forged from prison hierarchies in the gulags. Vors are said to live by a strict code: They never marry, work or tell lies.
Mr. Tokhtakhounov, who is in his mid-60s, is “one of the last of the older generation of godfathers,” said Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and an authority on Russian criminality. And his is among a handful of names that virtually every Russian gangster recognizes, he said.
Despite that reputation and the American charges, Russian authorities leave Mr. Tokhtakhounov alone. Russia has no extradition treaty with the United States and no outstanding charges against him. His thin criminal history here, an internal passport violation and an infraction for being unemployed, dates from the Soviet era and is no longer on the books.
Russian police officials say they have nothing on Mr. Tokhtakhounov; a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Interior Affairs, which oversees the police, confirmed he is on no wanted list here.
Russia under Vladimir V. Putin has arrived at a sort of détente with organized crime. In the 1990s, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia was besieged by mob wars in which gangsters publicly killed their enemies, but such violence has dropped sharply over the past decade.
Mr. Putin, who was president in the early 2000s and is again now, let it be known that such overt displays of gangsterism undermined the authority of the state and would not be tolerated, but he otherwise left the underworld hierarchy intact, Dr. Galeotti said.
Many violent crime figures have evolved into semilegitimate businessmen who carry on their activities through somewhat more acceptable means. Some now operate so openly that they have held gatherings on pleasure boats in the Moscow River in the heart of the city, the police say.
Whatever the benefits of such an arrangement inside Russia, thieves in law remain a menace in émigré communities abroad, said Sergei Kanev, a reporter covering organized crime at the newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
“Even in America the thieves have a huge influence on former Soviet immigrants,” he said. “Criminal threads still tie them together. All their relatives are here in Russia. A thief might say, ‘Play along, or your uncle and aunt will get it.’ ”
Mr. Tokhtakhounov, however, contested the F.B.I.’s characterization of him. He has been married, though he is now single. The police outside Russia, he said, often mistake his penchant for flashy clothes and high-priced meals for the lifestyle of a mobster.
“Let me explain something,” he said. “A thief in law, if he is a thief, he should not say, ‘I am not a thief.’ He should say, ‘I am a thief.’ And I say, ‘I am not a thief.’ You understand.”
Asked if he had ordered the restaurant cleared out for the interview, he just smiled, shrugged and suggested it was not a busy time.
American authorities say in the recent case that Mr. Tokhtakhounov served as a ringleader along with two others, Vadim Trincher and Anatoly Golubchik, of one of two overlapping illegal gambling operations. One operation, prosecutors say, was led in part by the scion of a New York art dealing family, Hillel Nahmad, which hosted poker games for celebrities and financial titans in New York and Los Angeles.
In the other operation, Mr. Tokhtakhounov is accused of funneling Russian oligarchs’ losses to shell companies in Cyprus, disguised as phony loans. The scheme, prosecutors say, laundered more than $50 million.
All the suspects have pleaded not guilty except Mr. Tokhtakhounov, who has not left Russia for a decade, he said, because of his fugitive status. Lawyers for Mr. Golubchik, Mr. Trincher and Mr. Nahmad said their clients were wrongly charged. The lawyer for Mr. Nahmad, Benjamin Brafman, said his client had never met or spoken to Mr. Tokhtakhounov, and even the indictment does not claim that.
Mr. Tokhtakhounov attributed his latest troubles to American agents’ eavesdropping on his phone calls with Mr. Trincher and Mr. Golubchik when he was placing bets, up to $20,000 on individual soccer games. The bets were his own, he said, not those of gambling clients; the agents misinterpreted his Russian slang.
“I speak openly on the phone,” he said, waving his gold-colored clamshell Samsung. “That is my whole problem.”
“If I’m a dealer, catch me,” he said. “They just catch my words. Ah ha! An organizer. How could I organize gambling in America? It’s impossible. And why would I? This is not my business.”
As he tells it, he is a real estate investor in Moscow, an organizer of Russian pop concerts and fashion shows, and now a writer. “I live peacefully on this business and raise my children,” he said.
Mr. Tokhtakhounov owned casinos in Moscow before gambling was outlawed there in 2009. His novel “Angel From Couture,” published in 2010, is subtitled “A Novel From the Life of High Fashion.” In the 1990s, he represented a Russian modeling association in Paris. The inside cover summarizes the story as “What happens when a young beauty falls for the charms of an older man.” Last year, he fathered twin girls with a woman 40 years younger than he is.
He lives in a prestigious apartment building in central Moscow and owns a palatial country home outside the city. He is also something of a celebrity, famously friendly with Joseph Kobzon, a crooner known as the Russian Frank Sinatra.
After the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, the F.B.I. said he had directed a scheme to secure a gold medal for the top Russian pairs skaters and for the top ice dancers representing France, one of whom was a Russian. The Russian pairs skaters won the gold, but after questions were raised about the judging, the Olympic committee awarded duplicate gold medals to the second-place Canadian team.
The authorities in Italy, where he then lived, detained him briefly on the charges but released him to Russia rather than extradite him to the United States.
His Interpol wanted poster accuses him of “bribery in sport contests,” fraud and other malfeasance and says he is affiliated with Semyon Y. Mogilevich, a man the American authorities consider a Russian Mafia godfather who is on the F.B.I.’s Ten Most Wanted list. Mr. Mogilevich also lives freely in Russia.
Mr. Tokhtakhounov denied knowing Mr. Mogilevich.
But he glumly recounted friendships with several others reputed to be Mafia leaders, including those known by the nicknames Grandpa Hassan and Yaponchik, or the Little Japanese, who were killed in recent years in two rare occurrences of mob violence. They were shot by snipers while leaving Moscow restaurants after meals.
At the Palazzo Ducale, as Mr. Tokhtakhounov’s own guard waited, he denied, line by line, the allegations against him. Three waiters continually circled, topping off the water glasses until one wandered too close during conversation and Mr. Tokhtakhounov told him to go away.
“Alimzhan,” the waiter responded, “Don’t worry, you know us: we’re deaf.”
– By ANDREW E. KRAMER and JAMES GLANZ