The Wild East

Organized crime has Russia even more firmly in its grip than has been reported. Lawlessness has made Americans in Moscow fear for their lives, thrown obstacles in the way of businesses both foreign and domestic—and eroded the government’s control over its nuclear weapons and materials.

Someone standing in front of Moscow buildings
Michael Reinhard / Getty

A Death in Moscow

On November 13, 1993, Michael Dasaro was brutally murdered in his apartment in a fashionable neighborhood in central Moscow, a ten-minute walk from the American embassy. Dasaro was on the verge of being a classic American success story. He grew up poor and streetwise in a public-housing project near Boston and managed to escape, with the aid of a scholarship, to Harvard University, where he became immersed in Russian studies. It seemed inevitable, after his graduation in 1981, that he would find his way to the Soviet Union and put his love of Russian culture and his fluency in the language to work. By the late 1980s he was a valued and much respected contract employee in the economics section of the U.S. embassy in Moscow. Last fall he was hired—at high pay—by one of the many American accounting companies now administering State Department contracts and Agency for International Development (AID) privatization programs throughout Russia and the former Soviet republics.

Dasaro was the first American citizen with direct ties to the embassy to be murdered since the era of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika began, in the mid-1980s. American officials who were sent to the scene took a series of gruesome photographs depicting the disarray of his apartment, which had been stripped of all valuables, including a computer, television set, and stereo, and the bloody bathtub in which Dasaro’s body, wearing only shorts, had been found. It seemed obvious that Dasaro was yet another victim of Moscow’s criminal element.

The Moscow police nonetheless refused to rule out the possibility that Dasaro had died of a heart attack. The Moscow Times, citing Russian autopsy findings, reported that Dasaro, who was thirty-five years old at the time of his death, was suffering from a rare heart disease known as cardiomyopathy. This statement and others like it were left unchallenged by top American officials in Moscow, to the dismay of Dasaro’s former associates in the embassy and elsewhere.

In the view of these old friends, some of whom are still foreign-service officers or AID contract employees, Michael Dasaro’s death has made it impossible to continue to ignore the penetration of organized crime into all aspects of Russian life, and the fact that American citizens are increasingly being targeted.

The exponential growth of organized crime in Russia is not only an issue of personal safety and economics—it is becoming an issue of national and international security. The criminal element in Russia is now in the process of hijacking the state, and is threatening to erode the government’s control over its stockpile of 15,000 tactical nuclear warheads and its hundreds of tons of weapons-grade plutonium and enriched uranium.

Two Presidents, George Bush and Bill Clinton, have supported Boris Yeltsin, the President of Russia, although the Yeltsin government has been unable to deal with crime. American policymakers have no illusions about the lack of order in Russia, but how to address it poses a classic dilemma: is the cure—more police and state control over day-to-day life and society—worse than the disease?

Furthermore, some Clinton Administration experts question how extensively the United States can intervene legitimately in Russian affairs. As these experts may know, the Bush Administration chose to play a major and until now secret role in helping Yeltsin to emerge as a hero in his first major crisis—the August, 1991, coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev. Bush’s clandestine support for Yeltsin may later have helped blind him and his senior aides to the dangers posed by organized crime in Russia—dangers that leave citizens at risk of being robbed or murdered, and nuclear warheads and enriched materials at risk of being sold to outsiders in Russia’s flourishing black market.

Dasaro became invaluable to embassy officials, most of whom could not match his fluent Russian, for his knowledge of Moscow and its leadership. Sometimes his access was discomforting to the men at the top. Dasaro’s former colleagues are quick to tell of the occasion, after a critical political meeting in 1990, when an embassy official beseeched Yeltsin, then the president of the Russian Federation, for information. “Why don’t you talk to your economic counselor?” Yeltsin replied, giving Dasaro a title he did not have. “I already gave everything to him.” When in 1991 a devastating fire swept through the embassy, Dasaro insisted on staying behind with John W. Blaney, then the embassy’s minister-counselor for economic affairs, to secure safes and classified documents. With the flames approaching, he calmly put together a crude ladder that enabled the last group of Americans to climb over the embassy wall to safety. “He was a hero that day,” Blaney says. A wire-service photograph of Dasaro scaling the embassy wall made front pages all over America.

Dasaro was also a good friend to the many young Americans just out of college who were hired to replace Soviet employees after a spy scare in the mid-1980s. Like them, he was deeply troubled by the extent to which organized crime had made inroads into all aspects of Russian life—including AID’s multimillion-dollar effort to change state-run enterprises into private businesses, known as the privatization program. “Michael was an expert on crime and privatization,” recalls Kim Gamel, who in the early 1990s was a fledgling reporter for the English-language Moscow Tribune and is now a graduate student in journalism at Northwestern University. “He had contacts and he knew that the criminal element had taken over privatization.” Dasaro was constantly telling her about various black-market schemes, Gamel says, but not in detail: “I don’t think he thought I could handle it journalistically, and he was probably right.”

The death of the man who knew the most about the streets shook the embassy. Those who knew Dasaro found themselves “unable to work, just sitting around, without words,” a foreign-service officer wrote in a letter to a former colleague. “He was one of us and his murder sends a shocking message: we are safe no longer.”

Dasaro’s friends knew that he had been planning to buy a used car—a business transaction, like many in Moscow, that could be made only with cash, and lots of it. Everyone in the embassy understood that any American in Russia who was withdrawing a large amount of cash from a bank or arranging for a cash advance was likely to become a target. The Moscow mafia is known to have bribed and extorted its way into most major banking and lending institutions to gain access to individual and corporate accounts. The Americans in the embassy also understood that one never declared significant amounts of cash upon entering the country: many airport customs officials were known to be in the employ of the mob, and to turn over the names of potential robbery victims. One embassy official who visited Dasaro’s apartment on the day after the murder told me that the ransacking of the apartment had stopped abruptly, indicating that whatever was being sought—such as a large sum of money—had been found. Many of his friends in the embassy believe that Dasaro was murdered for his money by a well-organized criminal group.

Within a week another explanation for Dasaro’s death emerged in the Moscow press: Dasaro had been a member of the underground gay community in Moscow and had been slain after a raucous party in his apartment got out of control. In late November the Associated Press, quoting a gay-rights group, reported that a special Moscow police unit, armed and wearing masks, had raided a gay bar in downtown Moscow on the day after Dasaro’s death, telling patrons that “one of yours has been killed.” That suggestion—that Dasaro’s death was linked to his secret ties to the gay community—became a hard fact for many Americans in and out of Russia. A former U.S. ambassador to Russia told me that he had been distressed to hear of Dasaro’s murder and had been advised, upon checking with senior officials in Washington, that “it was a gay thing—and that’s the reason they didn’t go into it further.” Dasaro’s former colleagues in the embassy “didn’t want to embarrass” his family by probing too deeply, the ex-ambassador added.

Dasaro’s many woman friends insisted in interviews that he was not gay. But one American official who formerly worked in Russia and who is himself homosexual told me that Dasaro did indeed frequent gay bars in Moscow. The fact that someone is gay, of course—whether or not Dasaro was gay—does not justify indifference to a murder.

As of mid-March the State Department was continuing to cite its unwillingness to intervene in Russian affairs, telling journalists who asked that the Russian police were “still conducting a criminal investigation” into Dasaro’s death. The United States would not take any action, a spokesman added, until that inquiry was completed. Reporters were told once again that the initial results of the Russian autopsy indicated that Dasaro died of a heart attack.

Dasaro’s father, Charles, a retired fisherman in Everett, Massachusetts, insisted that the body be returned to Boston for further autopsy. It arrived in December with much of the heart missing, making it impossible for Gerald Feigin, a state medical examiner who was retained by the family, to determine the cause of death. In a telephone interview Feigin did not challenge the right of the Russian pathology team to remove essential organs, but he expressed bitterness about the initial refusal of the Russian government to provide slides of relevant heart tissue. The slides did not arrive until February, he said, and showed no signs of heart disease.

Insiders’ Advice: Stay Away

Those former colleagues who are willing to be quoted view the embassy’s hands-off attitude toward Dasaro’s murder as an attempt to hide the impact of organized crime on day-to-day life in Russia and the former Soviet republics. They say that many of AID’s contract employees in Russia have been told not to discuss the murder with outsiders—and have also been instructed to buy steel doors for their apartments and to take more precautions when traveling alone at night.

Last year Karen Salz left Moscow, where she had worked as a contract employee in the embassy’s cultural-affairs office, to attend the graduate school of business at the University of California at Los Angeles. Her excellent Russian and her invaluable experience in Moscow inevitably led to offers of jobs and consultancies from American businessmen eager to get entrenched in Russia. “I tell them I wouldn’t recommend that anyone go over there without thinking very seriously about the crime,” Salz said in a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles. “People here are really shocked when I tell them how bad it is. I learned how naive Americans are—even now—and how hopeful American businesses are about going over there.” She added that after hearing the news of Dasaro’s death, “it occurred to me, of course, that the American government doesn’t want the public to know what’s going on. At some point there was a lid put on everything. None of my State Department friends can talk about it.”

For Kim Gamel, leaving Moscow involved more than just fear of becoming a victim. “There was a sense of fear,” she said recently in an interview in her campus apartment, in Evanston, Illinois. “That’s why I’m here. But there also was a sense that if I stayed there, I’d lose my moral sense. Corruption is the system there, and I was not even blinking when I bribed someone.” As a reporter in Moscow, she added, “I accepted the police system—it’s very bad—as natural. I wasn’t seeing the corruption as a good story. It was just a way of life.”

Gamel said she was especially distressed by the U.S. embassy’s stated reliance on the Moscow police to investigate the Dasaro murder fully. “The police are not even going to look for the truth, and everybody in the embassy knows it,” Gamel said. Many embassy officials, she added, carry bottles of vodka in their automobiles for bribing the police in case of trouble.

Another American, who left Moscow in 1991, recalls the shock inside the embassy when it was discovered that organized crime was in charge of the always lengthy line for U.S. visas, as Russians by the thousands sought to take advantage of the state’s liberalized international-travel rules. One senior American consular officer, enraged upon learning that those at the front of the line had paid criminals to get there, raced into the street and shoved the mobsters away. He was warned the next day by the Moscow police that neither the police nor any American inside the embassy had control over the streets outside. Russians continued to pay to stand in the visa line.

“Michael was killed because he was an American,” says Catherine McSherry, who worked with Dasaro in the embassy for four years. “I always thought that if you had street smarts”—like Dasaro—“you’d be okay. But it doesn’t matter in the end how assimilated you are; you stand out. Living alone as a woman is something you didn’t want to do. I wouldn’t walk my dog at night. I got rid of my car and hired a car and driver. Even with a driver you didn’t feel safe. It’s getting more and more gray in Moscow as to who’s in government and who’s in the mafia. It’s more and more entwined. It’s chaos out there.”

McSherry, who is now a travel agent in Washington, adds, “I think we should be asking more questions. But we’re afraid to.”

Nuclear Devices—And Control
Codes—For Sale

A myriad of official statistics and publications describe the extent of criminal penetration of Russia. But among them there is special significance to one recent and until now unpublicized U.S. study: an analysis of “the Russian mafia” compiled last November by the Department of Energy’s Office of Threat Assessment. The office provides the U.S. intelligence community with specific analyses of the engineering equipment and high-tech data available to those nations around the world suspected of building—or wanting to build—nuclear-weapons arsenals. It has also begun a study of Russian control over nuclear warheads and fissionable materials—clear evidence that at least some in Washington are worried that organized crime is threatening Russian nuclear security.

The DOE’s mafia study, officials at the department say, was the first step in what has become a large effort to collect intelligence on the potential nuclear threat from organized crime in Russia and the former Soviet republics. “Discussion of nuclear proliferation today,” the report said, “must cover the risk of criminal proliferation.” The report cited evidence showing that in 1991 about 4,000 organized-crime groups or gangs were operating inside Russia. The study included other findings:

  • One quarter of the organized-crime groups are believed to have ties to similar criminal groups abroad or in the former Soviet republics. A significant number of the groups have merged some or all activities with corrupt government and police officials.
  • Forty percent of private businesses and 60 percent of state-owned companies have been corrupted by organized crime.
  • The Russian mafia may own half the nation’s commercial banks and 50 to 80 percent of the shops, hotels, warehouses, depots, and service industries in Moscow. A substantial portion of the commercial district in St. Petersburg is similarly in the control of criminal elements, with businessmen being forced to pay 15 percent of their income for protection.
  • Corruption in the Russian army is widespread. In February of last year Russian defense officials announced that they planned to discipline 3,000 officers for questionable business practices and that forty-six general officers faced court-martial proceedings on corruption charges. The illicit “movement of military materiel through organized crime channels has resulted in the spread of former Soviet guns and weapons throughout the FSU [former Soviet Union] arming militants, nationalists, and criminals —and the world at large.” Russian armories are physically deteriorating and are guarded by soldiers whose indifference makes them vulnerable to criminal elements.
  • Organized crime now uses high-tech communications equipment, including fax machines, shortwave radios, and cellular phones, far more sophisticated than anything used by Russian law-enforcement officials.

So far there has been no documented case of the successful theft or illicit sale of a nuclear warhead or enriched materials from a Russian or former-republic stockpile. Despite many press reports of illicit sales and attempted smuggling of nuclear materials, some of the men now responsible for the Clinton Administration’s policies have insisted in recent interviews with me that since there is no clear-cut evidence, there is no crisis. “Worry isn’t a policy,” says a senior State Department official. “It’s a judgment call. Anybody who says we are not engaged in a risk is crazy. As a statesman, all you can do is try to make it come out right.” Another official, who feels the burden of the economic chaos in Russia, told me resignedly, “Unless you are able to come up with a credible story that a warhead has made it out of Russia, it’s not particularly important.”

Nonetheless there is powerful evidence that organized crime in the former Soviet Union has been systematically seeking access to the nuclear stockpiles, with their potential for huge profit. There is also evidence that the Russian government is unable to account for all its bombs and all its weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. The nuclear weapons most at risk are Russia’s tactical nuclear warheads, many of which are believed to carry an explosive force far greater than that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. These warheads, designed for use in artillery shells, aircraft bombs, land mines, and torpedoes, are stored under less-than-secure conditions on many military bases.

Dr. Thomas B. Cochran, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and one of the leading U.S. experts on Soviet nuclear issues, explained in a recent interview that Washington has been preoccupied with negotiating a reduction in the former Soviet Union’s strategic forces—the huge intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets in the United States. The destruction of most of the launchers for those missiles, which are placed in Russia and three former Soviet republics—Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakstan—will be verified under current U.S.-Russian strategic-disarmament agreements, which have yet to go into force. But, Cochran said, there is no U.S.-Russian mechanism in place for independently verifying the destruction of the warheads for the strategic delivery systems.

In mid-1992 the Central Intelligence Agency, telling Congress that it had only a “highly uncertain estimate” of the size of the Russian tactical nuclear arsenal, estimated Russia’s warhead count at 30,000 for both strategic and tactical weapons, with a margin of error of 5,000 warheads. “We don’t know how many warheads they’ve destroyed,” Cochran told me. “In fact, we don’t know within thousands how many warheads they had. And we don’t know within hundreds how many they’re destroying in any given year. We also don’t know how much fissile material”—weapons-grade uranium or plutonium—“the Russians have within hundreds of tons.” In mid-1992 the Bush Administration agreed to buy 500 tons of highly enriched uranium from the Russian stockpile “without knowing whether they have seven hundred or twelve hundred tons,” Cochran said. The major piece of legislation that Congress has passed on the Russian nuclear issue is aimed at ensuring the safe transport, storage, and destruction of nuclear weapons. The law, signed into effect by President Bush in 1991, provides funds for secure containers and improved safety conditions on the Russian railway cars that ferry the weapons. “The legislation is a joke,” Cochran said, referring to its implementation. “For example, it gives them training on how to respond to a nuclear accident but provides nothing for cleanup afterwards. They’ve already had two horrible nuclear accidents”—one in 1957, at a plutonium production plant in the Urals, and the other at Chernobyl, in 1986—“and instead of helping clean them up, we’re giving them training on how to handle the next one.”

Cochran said that his frustration over the current lack of nuclear intelligence is heightened by the fact that he and his colleagues in the NRDC were rebuffed by the Bush Administration in 1991 when they proposed a joint program to find, identify, and tag all nuclear weapons in Russian and American stockpiles. The White House rejected the idea because Russian military leaders, in offering full access to their tactical and strategic nuclear storage areas, were insisting on reciprocity inside the United States. “My belief is that many people in the Defense Department and White House thought, ‘We won the Cold War and we don’t want any Russian oversight over our arsenal,’” Cochran said. “As a consequence, we don’t have any oversight over their arsenal.”

The NRDC’s proposed joint operation had the added advantage, Cochran pointed out, of giving out-of-work and out-of money Russian nuclear scientists and technicians something to do in lieu of selling their expertise to the highest foreign bidder. Clinton’s election did not solve the problem, Cochran added angrily: the U.S. government still has not advanced a coherent program for verifying the elimination of Russian nuclear warheads and tracking the ultimate disposition of tons of surplus weapons-grade materials. “And now, three years after the Russians agreed to do joint research on the destruction of nuclear warheads,” Cochran told me, “we have nothing. I think control of warheads and fissile material in Russia should be the number-one national-security issue for America.”

In subsequent interviews many well-informed national-security officials said privately that they agreed with Cochran but questioned the value of raising the issue in public. A top administrator of one agency involved with nuclear matters told me that there is “a lot of legitimate and deep concern” inside the Clinton Administration about organized crime in Russia and the vulnerability of the Soviet tactical nuclear arsenal. “Could a Russian weapons storage area be raided?” the official asked rhetorically. “Yes. By Western standards they are minimally defended.”

At this point the official, who has discussed many other sensitive issues with me in the past, suggested that I not publish my information on the link between organized crime and Russian nuclear-weapons security. “I’m a very strong supporter of freedom of the press,” the official said. “But even an investigative reporter would support the notion that you don’t yell ‘Fire’ in a theater.”

“Let me put it this way,” another well-informed national-security analyst told me. “We’re gambling that Yeltsin can somehow keep control of the most important things most of the time. It’s a gamble imposed on us not by our own policy but by a course of events beyond our control. Yes, our public posture is Pollyannaish, but there is some value in not panicking the whole world. The question is whether we’re in the process of fooling ourselves—whether we’re screwing things up. After all, a government that can’t figure out how to deal with safety on the streets in Washington should not try to deal in Russia. On the other hand, by turning a blind eye to this I hope we’re not encouraging someone to think he’s sitting on a pot of gold.” This official said that he, too, could see an argument for not writing about the nuclear-theft risk posed by organized crime: “The very last thing we should do is provide free advertising to people who are thinking about it.”

Despite his doubts, the official went on to summarize some immediate security problems. The essential concern is that the new Russian government, weakened as it is, no longer controls its territory and its people. “It’s not even close to what the old Soviet Union had,” the official said. Because of rigid internal controls, the Soviet nuclear establishment had no need for extensive physical barriers at the weapons-storage sites. “Back in the old days,” the official explained, “the lack of physical safeguards didn’t matter. Even if someone had shot off a lock [and seized military goods], the government would send the KGB after them. The basic assumption was that physical security was backed up by overall control.

“If you go to a typical U.S. installation with sensitive stuff, it’s hard to get on and off the base—lots of guards—but you don’t have locks on every door. The assumption is that no one is going to get on the base. In the old Soviet Union the really tough perimeter fence was the one around the border. What mattered was that the KGB had two divisions, with helicopters and all that. And now that’s gone away and the Russians don’t have the resources to retrofit the installations with the kind of protection you’d want. None of this is a secret to us, but I don’t think there’s any advantage in talking about it.”

“Would they let us help them?” The official answered his rhetorical question with a noncommittal shrug. “If they asked for help, would we give it? Of course. The fact is that our options are limited.”

Paul A. Goble, who resigned from the State Department in 1991 as the special adviser on Soviet nationality issues, explained to me that the notion of limited options is heightened by the American “assumption that in any given territory the strongest force is the government.” He said, “It’s reassuring for our leaders to think other leaders have more power than they actually do.” In Russia, he added, “we’re watching the death of a state.” Goble, now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was willing to say what no one in the Clinton Administration wants said: “I’m convinced that if I had twenty-five million dollars, I could buy a warhead and the launch codes.”